A group of paleontologists have traveled the world to examine fossils from one particular region of the planet. As they piece together prehistoric pieces of evidence, they realize that they haven’t just found the skeletons of a few extinct creatures. They have found evidence that this particular pocket of the planet is history’s most dangerous landscape ever.
A team of researchers came together from around the globe to participate in this massive study, which saw them analyzing 100 years’ worth of 100-million-year-old fossils. The scope of what they had to work with was impressive, as was the amount of detail they could derive from these relics of a prehistoric era.
In most digs, paleontologists would unearth a slew of fossils from herbivorous dinosaurs. They’d find fewer remains of predatory beings, and for good reason: the way the food chain usually works is that high-energy-consuming top predators are found in lower numbers in any given system, because the nature of the energy transfer from plant to plant-eater to meat-eater is inherently inefficient.
There is no better prehistoric example of this than Tyrannosaurus rex. The massive dinosaur would always stand in the top slot of its food chain: no fellow predator could stand by its side. And yet, in the study of history’s most dangerous place, several predators just as large as the T. rex roamed in tandem.
Along with the major predators, this region also played host to extra-large crocodiles, flying reptiles and fish as big as cars. And those are just a few of the terrifying elements that made this corner of the earth history’s most dangerous ever. Stake your bets as to where it is now; you might not consider this spot as treacherous today.
Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim was the man tasked with taking charge of an international group of scientists gathered from universities and museums across the globe: England, the United States, Morocco, France and Canada. Together, they had a simple-sounding goal – they wanted to examine 100 years of fossil evidence from a particular spot on the map.
Their initial goal hadn’t been to find the Earth’s most dangerous locale. In the introduction to their study – published in an April 2020 installment of the journal ZooKeys – they explained how several other experts had already examined the same area. They had peered into the same rock layers that Ibrahim and his team planned to pore over themselves.
On top of that, the team noted that private collectors had looked into the rock layers in the area, too, in search of fossils for themselves. But the international group of experts wanted to review all of the geological and paleontological evidence that the spot had to offer, which would shed light on how the landscape looked millions of years ago.
Specifically, the team hoped they could, as they wrote in their study, “summarize the taxonomic status of the fauna based on all major collections of […] fossils, and […] evaluate paleoenvironments and the paleoecological significance…” of the area. In the past, similar studies had revealed noteworthy finds – but nothing like what Ibrahim’s team would come to discover.
In 1948 the area yielded the remains of a bony fish, although its modern-day environment would not have been as welcoming to such an animal. A few years later, another expert uncovered the skeleton of an even more impressive creature: a diplodocid sauropod, a creature that some refer to as the dachshunds of dinosaurs.
That’s because diplodocids had short legs in spite of their extra-long frames. Their backs sloped down from their hind legs toward their necks, as they had longer rear limbs. And the dinosaurs had extra-long necks, as well. Some wonder if they would have been able to lift their necks very well, based on computer simulations of their dimensions and movements.
After the discovery of the diplodocid, fieldwork slowed down in the area that Ibrahim and his colleagues would one day revisit. But during the half-century of reduced focus, a German scientist by the name of Helmut Alberti did organize a dig in the region. Fossils uncovered by his team included more bony fish, as well as some non-avian dinosaurs.
Alberti’s discoveries ended up at the University of Göttingen, but plenty of fossils from the same region have ended up in the hands of commercial collectors. Out of the hands of experts, though, these remnants often circulate without any clue as to precisely from which area they emanated, or what they once were.
What experts could discern with certainty and agree upon was the age of the fossil troves in question. According to the study published in ZooKeys, the land “has been regarded variously as mid- or early Late Cretaceous” period. This era stretched from about 100 million to 66 million years ago.
Taking a more forensic look at the area and the fossil remains found there, Ibrahim and his team were able to learn even more about it than others in the past. And what they discovered, according to the study leader, was a terrifying ecological landscape. According to the website Science Daily, he said, “This was arguably the most dangerous place in the history of planet Earth, a place where a human time-traveler would not last very long.”
This statement was down to the ecosystem that once flourished in the spot that Ibrahim and his team eventually came to study. It didn’t follow the normal set-up of such a natural system, the researchers found. Normally, food chains contain a handful of different species, beginning with tiny creatures that eat plants and ending with a large predator that eats the smaller, herbivorous beings.
For a food chain to stay balanced, there can’t be too many predators at the top. Prey only passes on a portion of its ingested energy to whatever consumes it down the line. So, predators need more edible creatures beneath them to get the nutrients they require. With too many hunters, though, the energy supply would dwindle.
But Ibrahim’s research revealed a completely different type of food chain in the area he and his team studied. He told broadcaster CNN in May 2020 that the area was “a really mysterious place, ecologically speaking” because it didn’t fit the norm, which as outlined above, would typically see ecosystems featuring several plant-eating species and one major predator at the top.
Instead, the area at the focal point of Ibrahim’s study had more predator fossils than those of plant-eating dinosaur fossils. This meant that a large number of predators – including Abelisaurus, Deltadromeus, Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus – inhabited the same swathe of land. And such a system wouldn’t be normal today, nor would it be normal in the era of the dinosaurs.
Take, for instance, the Tyrannosaurus rex. As Ibrahim put it, the massive dinosaur was “the undisputed ruler of its ancient ecosystem” and wouldn’t have shared the top spot with any other predator. So, he said, having multiple meat-eaters at the top of the chain was strange “even [by] dinosaur standards.”
All four of the aforementioned predators – Abelisaurus, Deltadromeus, Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus – were large and just as formidable as the T. Rex. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s principal researcher Matthew Lamanna described the Abelisaur as being “vaguely bulldog-faced” and somewhat smaller than Spinosaurus.
Meanwhile, Spinosaurus differentiated itself from the predatorial pack, Lamanna said, because it had “a six-foot-tall sail running the length of its back.” It slightly resembled a cross between a Carcharodontosaurus – another area predator – and a crocodile. The Carnegie Museum paleontologist described Spinosaurus as “an unholy love child” of the two.
On that note, Carcharodontosaurus resembled the T. Rex, although it lacked a few of the famed carnivore’s most well-known physical features. Lamanna said that the former would have had “a proportionally narrower head, somewhat longer arms, and three fingers – rather than [the T. Rex’s] two – on each hand.”
Experts also found the incomplete skeleton of a Deltadromeus, yet another predator with measurements comparable to that of a T. rex. All they could say for sure, though, was that it had slender legs and a lengthy tail; without fossil evidence, it would be difficult to say what the creature’s neck and skull looked like.
And, even with those massive predators in place, the region at the center of the study still had more meat-eaters within its borders. Lamanna also described “predatory crocodiles that would be at least as big as any that are alive today.” Flying reptiles took to the skies, too, and they “would dwarf any modern flying bird,” he added.
With so many predators in one place, it might seem like they’d battle – and kill – one another to take the food chain’s top spot. This wasn’t so, Ibrahim said, and fossil evidence proved it. The massive dinosaurs had a full menu of fish to eat – and there was plenty to go around, even with so many big appetites in the area.
Ibrahim found that giant sawfish measuring in at 25 feet in length once swam through the most dangerous region in history. And then, there were coelacanths, a type of fish that could match “the size of a car,” the lead researcher explained. Interestingly, coelacanths still live today, and experts consider them living fossils, as their origins trace back to more than 400 million years ago.
But it was the ancient ones – and, more so, their massive predators – that showed just how terrifying the place Ibrahim and his team analyzed had once been. From their fossil study, they could deem the river-lined location to be the most dangerous in history. But the modern-day landscape looks much different than it did 100 million years ago.
Ibrahim and his team had focused their study on a section of the Sahara Desert, which, of course, is still an incredibly unforgiving environment. Nowadays, the region’s heat and aridity make it a danger to human life for those who get stuck or lost in the scorching dunes. Indeed, it’s impossible to guess exactly how many people die each year as they trek across the expanse.
But 100 million years ago the Sahara was not the dessicated landscape we see today; the fossils found by Ibrahim and his team provided ample evidence of this fact. Specifically, they had the chance to explore a layer of Moroccan rock called the Kem Kem beds, which sit near the country’s border with Algeria.
As many of the fossils from the Kem Kem beds had been excavated and redistributed, Ibrahim and his team had to travel to more places than just Morocco to analyze the prehistoric landscape. Study co-author David Martill explained how they traveled the world to see a variety of different collections. He told website C Net, “This is the most comprehensive piece of work on fossil vertebrates from the Sahara in almost a century.”
What the team found has painted a completely new picture of what the Sahara once looked like: a treacherous place, but not in a dry-and-hot way. Instead, a river system snaked through the area, and it formed the habitat of the giant fish that once lived here. Kem Kem fossils proved their presence, as well as the presence of massive predatory dinosaurs, too.
Surprisingly, this was the first study to take such a deep dive into the Sahara and its Kem Kem fossil beds. Ibrahim and his team were able to discern the different creatures that lived there, but they also delineated a pair of distinctive layers in the soil: the Douira Formation and the Gara Sbaa Formation.
Both the Douira and Gara Sbaa formations had a very similar fossil footprint. The team found the same bony fishes, pterosaurs and dinosaurs in either side of the Kem Kem beds. It was a stunning find, as the ZooKeys publication explained, because “no comparable modern terrestrial ecosystem exists with similar bias toward large-bodied carnivores.”
But the study did more than just highlight the strange, scary food chain that once thrived in what’s now a part of modern-day Morocco. It also showed the importance of paleontological research in remote and far-flung places. Ibrahim told CNN that his team’s work “address[ed] the bias” that seemed to keep scientists away from Africa.
Ibrahim said, “Africa, in many ways, remains paleontology’s forgotten continent.” In some areas, of course, fossil evidence won’t be as strong as it is in the modern-day Sahara. But the Kem Kem beds show that there’s so much left to be discovered and analyzed on the continent and in other Southern Hemisphere locales.
Indeed, the Kem Kem beds revealed a former ecosystem where multiple massive predators stood at the top of the food chain. This was a uniquity, and it demonstrated the worth of more research in Africa. As Ibrahim put it, the continent’s ecosystems “do not simply replicate the ones we know from North America, or Europe, or better-known places.”
What’s more, the Kem Kem beds have come to clarify how the once-lush system of rivers in Morocco gave way to the arid, unforgiving landscape we see today. Other fossils revealed that saltwater eventually flooded out the river system that fed the area’s enormous predators. So, the snaking bodies of water became a shallow, tepid sea.
Over time, we know that the sea would eventually subside, too. And, when it did disappear, the body of saltwater gave way to the Sahara Desert, which is now the world’s hottest desert – undoubtedly dangerous, just as it had been in the prehistoric era. On some days, the scorching sand can reach temperatures upward of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
So, the fossils can teach us about the past, and the incredible ways in which the planet has changed over millennia. But, as Ibrahim said, his work – and the work of other experts who begin to explore new locations – could also show “the long-term consequences of biodiversity loss, which we are experiencing right now.” And those would be important lessons for everyone to learn, paleontologists or not.