Fifty years to the date
that astronauts touched down on the moon, I saw signs of life on the surface of Mars. Well, at least that’s how it felt at the time. Last July, I was in the Sahara, following National Geographic Explorer Nizar Ibrahim to southeastern Morocco. The trek took me to an outcrop of reddish sandstone that held the bones of the predatory dinosaur Spinosaurus. I was lucky enough to help find a piece of that one-of-a-kind skeleton.
I’ll never forget that scene: team paleontologist Gabriele Bindellini pausing my rock hammer; expert digger M’barek Fouadassi kneeling in to see what we had found; my heart starting to race. Then, the call: “Bone! Bone!” In that moment, the dust, the constant battle to stay hydrated, the heady smell of jackhammer fuel—all of it vanished. Only the awe of discovery remained.
I’m far from alone in feeling that rush. An explosion in fossil finds, along with advancements in analytical techniques, mean that paleontologists have learned more about dinosaurs in the past 25 years than in the previous 250. That’s why now is the best possible time to bring you a sweeping update on the new science of dinosaurs.
Spinosaurus is as good a symbol as any for scientists’ incredible progress. Less than two weeks after seeing Spinosaurus emerge from the rock, I was standing in a robotics lab at Harvard University in Massachusetts, watching as scientists tested a model of the dinosaur’s tail in a high-tech flume. Staring into that tank, watching that robot-mounted model flap back and forth, was every bit as magical as finding a dinosaur bone in the field. Both experiences got me that much closer to seeing how dinosaurs really were—not just as movie monsters, but as animals with rich lives all their own.
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