“The Kem Kem is 3,200 kilometers from Egypt, which is not a problem if you have great fauna overlap. But there are a lot of dinosaurs from Egypt that we are not finding in Morocco,” says Serjoscha Evers, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University who has studied Sigilmassasaurus, a relative of Spinosaurus.
While much of the discontent over Ibrahim’s find played out on researchers’ personal blogs and at academic conferences, last October Evers and his colleagues presented many of the criticisms in a 100-page paper published in the online journal PeerJ. They argued that the specimen Ibrahim claimed to be the S. aegyptiacus neotype could have been cobbled together from animals of different ages and different species, none of them S. aegyptiacus.
Ibrahim bristles at mention of the PeerJ paper.
“In terms of picking a fight, they’ve already picked it,” he says. “Serjoscha [Evers] has never looked at the original material, or at the geological context. He has never contacted me to ask questions I could have easily answered. I think it’s always good and healthy when people suggest different hypotheses, but this was different.”
“Spinosaurus is an incredibly sexy dinosaur — no one would get this worked up about a snail or a mollusk”
Ibrahim also claims that his critics are guilty of some of the charges they’ve laid at his feet, including describing species based on commercially acquired Moroccan fossils without solid evidence about where they were found in terms of geographic location and layer of rock. This geological context is key to establishing an accurate age.
“We apply really high standards, especially about geological context, for papers from North America, but for some reason, we drop those standards for fossils from Morocco and to some extent China,” Ibrahim says. “That creates problems with the science.”
Ibrahim cites variation among fossils of T. rex, as well as its wide geographic distribution — the iconic dinosaur has been found in both Texas and Canada, for example — when dismissing his critics’ argument that a single spinosaurid species was unlikely to have lived in both Morocco and Egypt during the middle of the Cretaceous period.
“Spinosaurus is an incredibly sexy dinosaur — no one would get this worked up about a snail or a mollusk,” he says. “I could have named it something new — that might have gotten even more attention. But since the holotype was destroyed, it seemed appropriate to make this the new reference type.”
Academic dust-ups over theories and conclusions are as old as scientific research itself, but, hearing the passion in Ibrahim’s voice as it cracks when he talks about Spinosaurus, you can sense there is a deeper issue for him here.
Inspired by Tragedy
In the bowels of Chicago’s Field Museum, a cavernous, climate-controlled archive houses row upon row of fossils, bones, hides and coiled snakes preserved in jars. The Field’s tidy but voluminous off-display reptile collection is a treasure-trove for comparative anatomists. On an August morning, Ibrahim has made a pilgrimage from his office, a short drive away at the University of Chicago — he left his position there last fall to focus on speaking engagements.
Ibrahim, whose boyish good looks make him seem even younger than he is, stands with a cloth tape measure in one hand and a century-old crocodile skull in the other. He checks a few points along its upper and lower jaws, noting the measurements. He places the skull back in its box, returns it to a shelf and takes another skull down for study.
The measurements will be part of a data set he’s developing that may help us understand how fast and how large dinosaurs like Spinosaurus grew. His hands and eyes are occupied by the task, but his mind is traveling thousands of miles and scores of decades away, back to the tragic life of his inspiration, German paleontologist Ernst Stromer.