Ohio University student part of team behind a key dinosaur find in Egyptian desert

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A team of researchers led by an Ohio University graduate student have discovered a fossilized dinosaur neck vertebrae belonging to a new species of carnivorous dinosaur in Egypt’s Bahariya Oasis. Since the beginning of the last decade, more than 15 partial dinosaur skeletons have been discovered there.

Rock near the Bahariya Oasis in the Sahara Desert in Egypt
A rock formation near the Bahariya Oasis in the Sahara Desert in Egypt. [shutterstock.com]

“We first discovered the specimen in 2016, but it was covered by sandstone and other mineral deposits,” said Belal Salem, the student who led the team. It took two years to prepare the fossil, which was identified as a cervical vertebra from a large dinosaur of the Abelisaurid family. It is estimated the fossil is 98 million years old, predating earlier Abelisaurid finds in Morocco and making this the oldest example of an Abelisaurid discovered in North Africa.

The Abelisaurids are a family of therapod dinosaurs found during the Cretaceous period. Fossils belonging to this family have been found throughout South America and Morocco. But it had been theorized the Trans-Saharan Seaway prevented the migration of Abelisaurids across modern-day North Africa. This is the first example of an Abelisaurid found in Egypt.

Located in the remote western desert of Egypt between the Nile River and the Libyan border, Bahariya Oasis presents a variety of challenges for paleontologists searching for fossils, most notably extreme heat and sandstorms. During the summer, temperatures can reach 101 degrees Fahrenheit.

Salem first became involved in vertebrate paleontology while he was attending college. “I love two things, biology and history. In 2014, I was reading about discoveries of Spinosaurus in Morocco and I was fascinated by this,” he said. “So I said to myself, ‘I’ll go and study this. I’m going to study fossils.’”

Salem’s dream is to find a Spinosaurus skeleton in Bahiriya Oasis. This massive dinosaur was first discovered there by German paleontologist Ernst Stromer in 1912. Unfortunately, Stromer’s specimen was destroyed when the museum it was housed in was bombed during the Second World War.

While paleontologists from Europe and North America have been exploring the Bahariya Oasis for over a century, Belal Salem is the first Egyptian to have done so. Once Salem receives his masters’ degree from Ohio University, he will become the first Egyptian to have a degree in dinosaur paleontology.

“I love it,” he said. “I work with things that I love and I want to do it. So I live my passion. My work is my passion.”