How do you dig up a dinosaur? A paleontologist recounts his “exceptional” expedition to Niger

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In classical paleontology, researchers make discoveries of pieces of bone or skeletons, sometimes damaged, and try to reconstruct a skeleton afterwards. The grail is to find an articulated skeleton, whole or almost. And this is what happened to a team of paleontologists who went on an expedition to the Niger desert. Vincent Reneleau, a volunteer paleontologist, recounts this “exceptional” excavation, in which he took part last November.

The skeleton of a sauropod was discovered in 2018, during the first phase of this American-Nigerian expedition. It was led by Doctor Paul Sereno, an internationally renowned paleontologist, in the Agadez region, the Nigerien Sahel.

This expedition required several years of preparation, because it was necessary to set up collaborations, obtain authorizations from the Nigerien authorities, and in particular ensure the safety of the paleontologists on site.

During a second phase of the expedition in November 2022, the team of paleontologists was preparing to exhume the sauropod already discovered in 2018. But once there, the paleontologists were not at the end of their surprises, says Vincent Reneleau joined by the editorial staff of France 24 Observers:

When we arrived on site, there was obviously the dinosaur that had been found in 2018. But by digging around a little better, we found others. And indeed, we brought out five sauropods, all of them large dinosaurs with a long neck, a long tail, the largest land animals that have ever existed. It was an exceptional discovery.

Researchers exhuming a sauropod.  Twitter / @VincentReneleau
Researchers exhuming a sauropod. Twitter / @VincentReneleau © Twitter / @VincentReneleau

The most classic discoveries, we just find a very damaged piece of bone. And then by digging around we will find skeletons, but which are partial, scattered over an area which will be several tens or even hundreds of square meters.

The Grail in paleontology is to find the articulated skeleton, the animal almost as it was on the day of its death, with all the bones of the skeleton in their anatomical place or almost. And this is what we actually found in Niger. This is very rare when it comes to large animals, because their fossilization is much more complicated. Finally, the bones are in the position in which they were when the animal was alive. So scientifically for us it is very interesting, because we can draw a lot of information from it.

Five specimens, all articulated, were found by the researchers.  Twitter / @VincentReneleau
Five specimens, all articulated, were found by the researchers. Twitter / @VincentReneleau © @VincentReneleau

Scientists estimate that the sauropod lived on Earth between 145 and 180 million years ago. This is a rare and fragile specimen, the exhumation of which requires a great deal of care. In fact, how to exhume a dinosaur skeleton hundreds of millions of years old without damaging it?

We cannot take out a dinosaur skeleton as it is, because it weighs several tens of tons. It is cut into large sections, and plaster is used to preserve it.

Vincent Reneleau explains in detail the course of the exhumation in this thread published on Twitter.

To unroll:

The dinosaurs will soon be transported to paleontology laboratories in the United States to be preserved and studied there, because “unfortunately Niger does not have any today”, explains Vincent Reneleau. “It is meticulous work that requires a lot of time,” he concludes.

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