WUSTL researchers make discoveries in first collaboration with Libyan scientists

Goldmine of fossils found

They’re back!

Joshua Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, and D. Tab Rasmussen, Ph.D., professor of anthropology, both in Arts & Sciences, are stateside, teaching at Washington University after returning from what is thought to be the first-ever collaborative paleontological expedition between American and Libyan scientists. Smith and Rasmussen were in Libya for just three weeks in August of 2005. They were in the field for only 10 days, and they and their colleagues visited 13 new places that have produced Cretaceous-aged vertebrate fossils. They found fossils of sharks, bony fish, crocodiles and turtles.

Josh Smith in the Libyan desert.
Josh Smith in the Libyan desert.

In addition to fossil-hunting near the Tunisian border, they explored a remote, lonely escarpment in the middle of the country, close to the southern border with Chad, in 120 degree Fahrenheit temperature, a site that researchers last visited 36 years ago, called Dor al-Talhah. Here they were going after early Tertiary-aged mammals.

In total, the team covered 4,000 kilometers of Libya in just three weeks.

They have submitted papers about their findings to scholarly journals and expect publication soon.

Fossil goldmine

Smith and Rasmussen value the collaboration with Libyan scientists because there are no vertebrate paleontologists native to Libya and the country, two-and-a-half times the size of Egypt, is a goldmine of fossils from their eras of specialty, the Cretaceous for Smith, and the early Tertiary for Rasmussen. Both scientists hold their Libyan colleagues in high regard, saying that these are well-trained geologists that have long been working on reconstructing the geological evolution of Libya; they simply haven’t been focused on vertebrates.

“When Tab and I speculated about Libya, we had no idea of how we’d find the research climate,” Smith said. “It was excellent. The Libyan researchers were enthused about our presence. There hasn’t been an American/Libyan connection in this research area before, to our knowledge. Libya is one of the last places left to go where very little work has been done. There have only been about five legitimate reports of dinosaurs out of Libya since 1960. It’s very important that we collaborate with Libya, from a research and cultural perspective as well.”

Exploring the former island continent

Rasmussen said that the evolution of animals in Libya and the region is not well known.

“Africa was an island continent for a very long time, thus cut off from evolution that was occurring in other land masses,” he said. “So, evolutionary things going on there are unique, from the last age of the dinosaurs to the beginning of the age of mammals. Working there is a fantastic, unique experience. Josh and I both like going there because it’s what every scientist wants — another experimental run.”

Both scientists say collaboration is extremely important.

“The world needs this, interaction between the Western World and the Muslim World,” Rasmussen said. “Scientists can find common ground in research.”

Rasmussen specializes in the origins and evolution of early anthropoid (human) primates. After dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period, a whole new world started to evolve in terrestrial ecosystems dominated by birds and mammals. An entire group of mammals, called the archaic mammals including elephants, and their relatives evolved in isolation in Africa for a very long time, and some of these groups became extinct when there was mixing of faunas from northern continents.

“To get a good view of the early anthropoids, we need a new place to find them and study them, and I think Libya is the best place to do this,” Rasmussen said.

‘Undiscovered country’

Smith is a paleontologist “with a geological bent,” as he puts it. In 1999, Smith and his collaborators discovered an entirely new genus of dinosaur, Paralititan stromeri, one of the second most massive animals ever to walk the Earth, in Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis in the Sahara.

Smith and Rasmussen consider Libya “undiscovered country,” which could yield a plethora of new information. Smith wants to explore Libya to see if the rock history would explain the type of ecosystem that was there and determine if it was similar to the one in Egypt that produced such large dinosaurs.

“We were looking for a suite of rocks that were similar to what we found in Egypt,” he said. “That [Egypt] ecosystem produced gigantic dinosaurs, multiples of them. We want to know if Egypt is a unique scenario or is the scenario Pan-African? It turns out we couldn’t answer that question on our short initial expedition.”

Smith also hopes to determine how plants and animals coped with the extreme “hothouse” conditions during the middle Cretaceous, when subtropical sea surface level temperatures were apparently around 30 to 34 degrees Celsius, and atmospheric temperatures and carbon dioxide levels were significantly much higher than they are now.

Next up for the scientists is a reconnaissance trip in February for Rasmussen, who hopes to explore more deeply at Dor al-Talhah. He will be gone for two weeks. In March, both Rasmussen and Smith hope to explore a place on the border of Algeria that they could not visit in August. The next full camp in Libya is in the works for Dec. ’06 and Jan. ’07.