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Out of Africa come fascinating fossils

Finds from Africa's vastness will help fill in biology's history of the dinosaurs' demise.

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Earlier this year, an international team led by University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Joshua Smith reported the discovery of an enormous plant-eating titanosaurid at the Bahariya Oasis in Egypt, an area that paleontologists have not explored since 1935.

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Drawn to scale, the new creature gives an African elephant all the presence of a toy poodle standing next to Michael Jordan. The area is so rich in fossils that Mr. Smith dubs it "dinosaur heaven."

Fossil discovery and politics

Africa's seemingly late appearance as a fertile ground for dinosaur fossil-hunting is traceable largely to its history as a geopolitical football, researchers say. Two world wars, wars for independence, and subsequent civil wars fueled in part by cold-war allegiances allowed for only brief windows of stability through which US and European researchers could peek at the continent's prehistoric treasures.

"Probably the greatest undertaking was in what's now Tanzania," says Hans-Dieter Sues, vice president for collections and research at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and a professor of zoology at the University of Toronto. "They got spectacular material, and it forms one of the most important Jurassic dinosaur assemblages in the world to this present day."

Conducting their digs from 1909 to 1912, the team used slash-and-burn techniques to uncover fossil-bearing formations - literally cutting their way through the rainforest and burning out the undergrowth. The expedition employed hundreds of local tribesmen.

"Every bone had to be carried to the coast hundreds of kilometers away," Dr. Sues says. "It was a real testament to their perseverance."

About the same time, German researchers working in Egypt found the rich trove of fossils at the Bahariya Oasis, only to see the collection largely destroyed during Allied air raids during World War II.

Two French paleontologists moved into North Africa in the late 1940s and early '50s, yielding the first hint "that North Africa has these remarkable resources," Sues continues. They were followed in the 1960s by Dr. Taquet, who began exploring Niger after French mineral companies reported finding large numbers of fossils as they explored for uranium.

Even now, researchers say, they would love to poke around promising formations in Algeria and the Congo. But Islamic militancy in Algeria and the low-level war in the Congo are giving them pause.

Says one paleontologist, "The Congo has excellent prospects.

"We have hints of Cretaceous reptiles and Jurassic fish. I'd love to explore Algeria, but I'm worried about getting my throat cut, especially in rural areas where they don't like foreigners very much."

Still, when combined with those from other parts of the world, Africa's finds to date are helping to tell a story of the diversification of vertebrates, whose changes appear to have been driven as much by plate tectonics as by genetic mutation.

Sues describes an outline that begins in the late Triassic period, some 230 million years ago, when Pangea, driven by the molten heat exchanger beneath earth's crust, begins its inexorable split.

At that time, he says, Pangea was inhabited by early mammals and lizard-like reptiles that appear to be virtually the same throughout the supercontinent. "You see these same little animals in places as far apart as Nova Scotia, South Africa, and China. That's just extraordinary. There was nothing like it before in earth history and has been nothing like it afterwards."