"New" Flier Swoops Into Dinosaur Hunter's Bestiary

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
December 19, 2003

Tomorrow a new species of African pterosaur—a type of dinosaur-era flying reptile whose ancestors prowled the sky millions of years before the first bird ever flapped its wings—takes flight in Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory.

A reconstruction of the giant flier sports a 16-foot (4.8-meter) wingspan of eerily translucent skin and a gaping jaw. The model and a second full-size skeleton of the 110-million-year-old fish-eater are certain to wow the public, even if there is little new about them (see image caption).

Paul Sereno, a paleontologist who led the expedition that found key fossils (a wing and teeth) behind the exhibit, thinks pterosaurs and their landlubbing dinosaur cousins command such popular appeal because they come from a world that must be imagined but was ultimately real.

The distant age is one "you can sort of walk back in time and find a piece of," said the University of Chicago researcher and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence.

Sereno has embarked on time travels of his own. Over the past decade, he's led a series of expeditions to the 135- to 90-million-year-old rock outcrops of the Sahara.

Together with a corps of researchers, Sereno has pried a bestiary of new dinosaurs and other ancient animals from the African desert. In the process, he's helped outline the history of dinosaur evolution on the continent, one of paleontology's least understood regions.

Speaking by satellite telephone in the middle of a sandstorm in Niger during his fifth, and most recent, expedition to the country not too long ago, Sereno said the minute he set foot in the Sahara it became his obsession.

"Each continent has it's own story to tell. Africa has been relatively unexplored," he said. "How many continents have a whole dinosaur world to discover? … There're only so many opportunities in a lifetime for something like that."

Within the greater Sahara, Niger and the Ténéré desert region have proven to be especially rich sources of fossils. It's there that Sereno has probed geologic beds dating to 135, 110, and 90 million years ago that span the early, middle, and late chapter's of Africa's dinosaur history during the Cretaceous Period.

His efforts there have yielded what may well be the discoveries of a lifetime.

"Weird Animals"

In 1997 Sereno and 15 colleagues unearthed the fossil remains of Suchomimus tenerenis, a 100-million-year-old sail-backed spinosaur. Big as a T-rex, the predator wielded thumb claws a foot (30 centimeters) long. (It later took a star turn in the film Jurassic Park III.)

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