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The hunt for Spinosaurus

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The scientist's discovery of the world’s first semiaquatic dinosaur — known as the Spinosaurus and on display as a replica starting Friday at the National Geographic Museum — nearly didn’t happen.

And it only happened from the kind of luck concocted in movies.

Nizar Ibrahim, a paleontologist, was traveling in 2008 in Morocco, researching the country’s Kem Kem beds, a Mars-like graveyard full of innumerable dinosaur fossils buried 95 million years ago. One day, a Moroccan fossil hunter came up to him on the dusty streets of Erfoud, an oasis town where dealers and hunters gather before expeditions.

“He heard that I was a guy looking for dinosaur fossils, and he said he had something for me to look at,” recalled Ibrahim, 32, a University of Chicago paleontologist. “He really didn’t know what he had.”

[Related: First evidence of a swimming dinosaur]

What the Moroccan man showed Ibrahim was groundbreaking in the dino-world: A chunk of finger bone and spine from what would later be verified as Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, a swimming predator that’s about 50 feet in length, about nine or ten feet longer than the notorious Tyrannosaurus Rex. (No doubt a sore spot for T. rex fans.)

The predator ate sharks, boasted a crocodile-like snout that enabled it to sense movement in the water, huge conical shaped teeth for gnashing on car-sized fish; and, its signature feature, enormous dorsal spines that created a sail on its back that would have been visible even when it was roaming the waters.

University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno describes Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, a predator of the Cretaceous Period that had adapted to life in water 95 million years ago. Sereno, his UChicago colleague Nizar Ibrahim, and an international team of associates announced their discovery in the journal Science online, at the Science Express website, on Thursday. (Video: UChicago Creative)

The Moroccan man’s discovery was all the more significant because the world’s last known partial skeleton of a Spinosaurus had been destroyed in the 1944 Allied bombing of Munich, where they had been kept by German paleontologist Ernst Stromer.

A replica of that finger-and-spine chunk is the first item to greet visitors at the National Geographic’s exhibit, “Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous,” which lasts through April 12. But deeper inside the exhibit, as you walk past videos and display cases that tell the history of the Spinosaurus and the story of Ibrahim’s discovery, you see the beast in its full, skeletal glory: a plastic resin-and-fiberglass replica of the swimming Spino, based off Ibrahim’s discovery and other Spinosaurus fossils found in the same spot in Morocco and later obtained by the Natural History Museum of Milan.

The discovery of that finger-and-spine fossil in the streets of Erfoud paved a path for the creation of National Geographic’s exhibit and the creation of the Spinosaurus replica.

“We knew a lot of about the Spinosaurus before this, about individual bones and other fossils, but we didn’t have a partial skeleton that would serve as a Rosetta Stone, which would help us put the animal together and envision its size and proportions,” said Paul Sereno, a University of Chicago paleontology professor, who collaborated with Ibrahim and helped lead an international team of researchers to study the new Spinosaurus fossils.

Most of the Spinosaurus fossils are still at Sereno’s lab at the University of Chicago and will eventually be repatriated to Morocco, he said. But the National Geographic Museum’s exhibit does have some of the real Spinosaurus fossils found in Morocco, including a very scary four-toed foot, a piece of the beast’s jaw and spine from the animal’s sail.

“We would have normally put more of the skeleton in a whole display case, but we knew this was all going to go back to Morocco, and they have to trust us that we’re going to give that material back,” Sereno said.

Plus, Ibrahim added, “We still need to continue studying the fossils.”

Getting the fossil out of Morocco in the first place wasn’t that hard. Back in 2008, Ibrahim suspected the local Moroccan man’s discovery was likely a skeletal piece of the Spinosaurus. So Ibrahim and a colleague paid the man a nominal fee, and took it.

“We told him we weren’t fossil collectors and that we wanted to put this in the collection of Morocco,” Ibrahim recalled. “He knew we weren’t some foreigners looting.”

Ibrahim first brought the fossil to a university in Casablanca, but he said officials there couldn’t confirm the object, so he took it back to Dublin, where he was writing a dissertation on the Cretaceous era of Morocco. But he on his own could not verify what it was exactly. So, he took it back to Morocco and returned it to the Casablanca university.

“I knew there was something special about this piece,” Ibrahim said. “It seemed like the kind of thing where you’d have to wait until more material is found.”

It took about another year or two for more fossils from that same Spinosaurus to emerge on Ibrahim's radar — and for him to finally get his eu­reka moment. He traveled to Milan, and visited its natural history museum, whose experts showed him what they had recently gotten on their own: many more fossils from the same Spinosaurus in Morocco.

“I saw the cross-section of the bones and my mind started racing. I thought, ‘Wow, this looks exactly like the strange chunk of bone I found,” Ibrahim said. “The color and the sediment were the same — it was reddish and had yellow streaks.”

But how could Ibrahim get what he found and combine it with what the Italians had? And then, how could all the bones be studied at once, ultimately to build a replica?

By 2011, as Ibrahim was planning to team up with Sereno at the University of Chicago, the two helped persuade the Italians to ship the Spinosaurus bones to his lab.

“It was unbelievable. About 1200 pounds of bones arrived in Chicago by February of 2012,” Sereno said. “Now, we could build the replica. We’d do it in less than a year. It was going to be bigger and badder — the crowning glory of Spinosauruses.”

Thanks to about $600,000 of funds from the National Geographic, Sereno and his team CT-scanned the fossils, and had the replica constructed in Toronto before it was ultimately shipped to Washington.

For Ibrahim, he still cannot believe the discovery hinged on his happenstance run-in with a random man from Morocco. “It's pretty incredible, finding that mysterious, mustachioed man in the desert,” Ibrahim said. “What are the odds?”