Sauropod Island

Rice's Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Ph.D. student Robert Laroche provides 'a day in the life' for their trip to Niger, Africa to further research


I’ve spent the last three weeks at a site on the Irahzer plain, part of the Irahzer group geological formation that expands to the south and west of Agadez and is dated to the middle Jurassic. After a shortened first leg of the expedition, this felt like my first real test: three weeks of nonstop excavation of some of the largest dinosaurs to ever walk the earth. Unlike before, when we arrived we had the time to set up a real camp. We had a massive tent for food preparation, one for our solar charged batteries, camera equipment, and books deemed the ‘tech tent’, and one for shade under which to eat (pictured below). Every day we made the short trek in our trusty land rovers to an expansive area void of even the thorny acacias and other desert plants that speckled the landscape surrounding us, which we appropriately nicknamed sauropod island.


Our main task was to uncover and excavate a single sauropod (the name for a group of large long necked plant eating dinosaurs) that had been discovered on a previous expedition. However in the first day on sauropod island, we discovered three additional skeletons and the work began! To our excitement (and terror) the incredible condition and completeness of each of the specimens meant skeletons over thirty feet long and plaster jackets weighing upwards of three tons.

After uncovering the first skeleton, it became clear that this sauropod was unlike anything that had been seen before. With a surprisingly short neck and thick stocky legs relative to other sauropods this size, a picture was forming of a bulky creature, which our expedition leader Dr. Paul Sereno found reminiscent of a linebacker. As the days turned into weeks, the other specimens were uncovered and appeared to be the same creature. Spare pieces of other individuals of the species were found between the major sites, leading to what will surely be one of the most well known sauropod species ever discovered!


When the site I was working on was nearing completion, I was recruited for a ‘paleo strike team’ of 4 to achieve the impossible: make trip to a more distant site to collect an entire spinophorosaurus specimen (another of Niger’s sauropods that had been discovered by Sereno’s team previously) in a single day-a feat which we managed to achieve after nearly 12 backbreaking hours, including many manning my first jackhammer (pictured below).

As work on the remaining specimens on sauropod island progressed and less than a week of time in the field remained, our eyes turned to yet another prize: a sauropod specimen that had been left behind previously, this time a few hours from our camp at a location known as Tawachi, an area below the cliffs that curve around Agadez. This specimen had previously been misidentified as a well known genus of Niger sauropod, Jobaria, and so was left in the ground. However, a more recent inspection of the bones revealed differences that suggest that this could be yet another new species of sauropod in Niger. Unfortunately, the bones had been exposed to the elements for the better part of two decades so the goal was to salvage the best preserved and most characteristic components from the fossil before the wind and sand wiped it from the face of the earth completely. Beyond the dinosaur fossils Tawachi had to offer, a special fish, Mowsonia was also known to the region-a massive ancient coelacanth genus that has been found on multiple continents. Part of the oldest known living lineage of lobe-finned fish (the group that eventually evolved into all tetrapods including you and I), coelacanths were once thought to exist only in the fossil record before living species were discovered in the 1930s. Wandering near the eroding sauropod revealed several massive fragmented bones that likely came from this fish!

Returning to our main camp with the finish line in sight, there was only one major challenge that remained. The manpower methods used on the first part of the expedition to lift jackets out of the pits we had dug to uncover them were necessarily replaced with more powerful machinery: vehicles with tow straps and a truck with a giant mechanical arm (pictured below). With only minor cracks in a few jackets and a tow strap that caused a scare by snapping mid-pull we managed to load every jacket onto our truck.


Finally, as if we hadn’t done enough already, on our way out we tackled one final task, taking latex molds of a trackway of sauropod footprints hardened in stone, perhaps of one of the species whose skeletons we had just uncovered (pictures below). With hands caked in plaster and coated with cracks, cuts, and blisters, and nearly 30 tons of fossil material in tow, we headed back to Agadez for much needed showers and even more needed beers before packing up to do it all again after three days time-not to mention loading the better part of the 30 tons of fossils into a forty foot shipping container for storage.

Our next stop will be the greatest test of the team yet. Deep into the desert in a region known as Egaro, we will be further from civilization than ever before and will be unable to return to the city for supplies before the end of the next three weeks. I look forward to sharing the details of this final leg when I return!


All of Robert's research blogs can be found here: