So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

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


As someone who studies fossil fish coming along on a mostly dinosaur and croc expedition, I tried often to temper my expectations as to how much fish material we would be able to find. So, when the number of fish fossils collected on this final leg of the expedition far surpassed even my wildest hopes and dreams it made the experience that much sweeter! As I had written previously, this final leg of the expedition started with two weeks in Egaro, an isolated region past a sea of sand dunes that were treacherous to cross even with modern pick-up trucks replacing our 30 year old Land Rovers and a legendary Tuareg guide, Abdul-Nasser (pictured below). Riding through the desert on a motorcycle loaded with everything he needed to survive, a sword strapped to his back and his trenchcoat billowing in the wind, sometimes Abdul-Nasser seemed more like a character from an epic fantasy than a real person. It’s no exaggeration to say that without his expertise navigating the desert landscape, we would have never reached our destination when we did.


One of the species we knew we would find in this region was Suchomimus, a large three toed spinosaur known for the sail on its back and its crocodilian-like skull and teeth, perfect for hunting fish. It follows then, that in a region filled with massive, fish–hunting dinosaurs, one might also expect to find remains of the fish that must have sustained this animal. Within minutes of our arrival at the Egaro site, this is exactly what we found. Jutting from the ground was the skull roof of a fish whose head may have been close to a meter long! Before too long a second specimen had been found on the other side of a nearby dune, this one even larger than the first, with a single cheek bone the size of a large dinner plate. These fossils, along with the many pieces of spinosaur and crocodile jaws that we found began to paint a picture of a lush ecosystem with large deep rivers that must have existed here nearly 90 million years ago. Before our two weeks were up, the number of incredible new discoveries that had been made in such a short time prospecting were astounding and could fill a book–and indeed they did fill the field notebooks of many members of our team.


During our last week in the field, one last voyage was made, back to the region where all of this started, Gadoufaoua. In six days we were tasked with finishing the work that began during the first leg of this great adventure, but had been cut short due to the delays our team had faced in Agadez. Most notably, this meant excavating a expansive microsite, an area of sediment packed with tiny fossils, including some impressively articulated fish scales, hinting at the potentially articulated fish skeletons hiding underneath. Our methods for collecting this site were unlike anything anyone on the team had ever experienced before: we would use a rock saw to carve the microsite into blocks and then using chisels, pop each block out (pictured below). For dozens of these blocks, containing over 30 specimens of fossil fish, I had personally drawn the dividing lines to protect the best preserved specimens. The ease with which blocks separated from the ground was unbelievable. These sandstone bricks were one by one wrapped in plaster jackets and lifted by hand into the bed of our supply truck, numbering over 130 by the time we were done (pictured below). The next morning we packed our supplies, cleaned our campsite, and for one final time, loaded the team into our caravan of vehicles to travel back to Agadez. 

Over the past few days since our return I have been mulling over this experience, trying to make sense of how my time here in Niger passed by so quickly. From the minute I stepped off the plane into this country, I have been welcomed here by so many who have displayed a level hospitality rare in any country in the world. The many amazing friends that I’ve made here alone make it difficult to imagine that this will be my last time visiting this place, not to mention the allure of two world class museums which will be constructed to showcase some of the incredible paleontological and cultural heritage of the nation. With regards to the members of expedition team from out of the country, I couldn’t have asked for better companions on this great adventure. Every day I learned something new about geology, paleontology, excavation methods, and even a surprising amount of European history. I know that no matter the distance between us or the years that pass after I return home, I will often think back on my experiences here with a smile.


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