Dinosaur discoveries: Middle East to become new 'goldmine' for palaeontology

This week marks 200 years since dinosaurs were first officially catalogued and classified, and experts think there is potential for great discoveries in the Middle East

Palaeontologist Sanaa Al Sayed works on a dinosaur fossil discovered in the town of El Mansoura, north of Cairo. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

The Middle East has been held up as the key to the next generation of breakthroughs in palaeontology, as fossil hunters mark 200 years since dinosaurs were first officially catalogued.

From carnivorous dinosaurs in Egypt and three-toed footprints in Jordan to the wealth of fossils and amber preserved in Lebanon's quarries, the Middle East is becoming a happy hunting ground for palaeontologists.

With more than 2,000 species of dinosaurs identified since 1824, the knowledge of experts has vastly developed since English naturalist and theologian William Buckland officially announced classification of a newly discovered ancient reptile on February 20 that year.

University of Edinburgh palaeontologist Professor Steve Brusatte, who was an adviser on the film Jurassic Park, said there is still much more to discover.

"His [Buckland's] announcement opened the floodgates and started a fossil rush, and people went out looking for other giant bones in England and beyond," he told The National.

Dr Benjamin Kear, the curator of vertebrate palaeontology and researcher in palaeontology at the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden, was part of the team that discovered the first evidence of dinosaurs in Saudi Arabia in 2014.

Now working on a project in Lebanon, he has heralded the Middle East as the key to unlocking more hidden secrets about dinosaurs, describing it as a “goldmine” which has the potential to create a “real-life Jurassic Park”.

“Dinosaurs went everywhere. The fossils will be there but the problem has been that people have not been able to look. My colleague and I have worked all across the Middle East just trying to find traces of this long-lost world,” he told The National.

Dr Kear and his team found teeth and bones dating from around 72 million years ago in the north-western part of Saudi Arabia, along the coast of the Red Sea.

They belonged to two types of dinosaurs, a bipedal meat-eating abelisaurid distantly related to a Tyrannosaurus but smaller, and a plant-eating titanosaur which could have been up to 20 metres in length.

“It is a gold mine of future exploration. Dinosaur fossils are everywhere across the Middle East.

“The ideal place to look is the Middle East, it is one of the undiscovered areas. The possibilities are endless," said Dr Kear.

“My recent work is in Lebanon. People sell fossils, and we have been working directly with fossil hunters as they are sitting on huge collections of spectacular stuff and we are helping them see the value of turning it into geotourism.

“With the limestone layers in Lebanon, we can get a snapshot of what was going on in the Middle East 90 million years ago. It is a real-world Jurassic Park. We are looking for the protein residue that has been preserved in the amber so we can push the boundaries.

"The Middle East is at the cutting edge of what will be the real Jurassic Park.

“It is a long way off but the science is developing at an accelerating rate. The things coming up will be very exciting. Who knows where we will be in another 200 years.”

Dinosaur research has come a long way in two centuries.

Dr Kear's work is building on the discovery made by Buckland, who in 1824 addressed the Geological Society of London, describing an enormous jaw and limb bones which had been unearthed in a slate quarry in the village of Stonesfield, near Oxford.

He recognised that the fossils belonged to a huge bygone reptile, and gave it a formal scientific name Megalosaurus, meaning "great lizard".

With that, the first dinosaur was officially recognised, though the word "dinosaur" would not be coined until the 1840s.

In the intervening 200 years, dinosaur science has flourished, providing insight into what these creatures looked like, how they lived, how they evolved and what doomed them.

Dinosaurs walked the planet from between 231 million and 66 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era. Their bird descendants are with us today.

When Buckland first discovered Megalosaurus he thought it was a 20-metre long lizard that walked on four legs and could live on land or in the water.

Scientists now know it was not quadrupedal and not a lizard, but belonged to the theropod group comprising meat-eating dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus, and was about nine metres long.

At the time, Buckland did not know how long ago dinosaurs had lived, as he believed Earth to be only a few thousand years old. Scientists now know Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

Megalosaurus lived about 165 million years ago.

English naturalist Richard Owen recognised that Megalosaurus' fossils and two other large land-dwelling reptiles, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, formed a common group, calling them Dinosauria in 1841.

The subsequent discovery of Hadrosaurus and Dryptosaurus fossils in New Jersey showed that at least some dinosaurs were bipedal, changing the perception that they resembled reptilian rhinoceroses. Around the 1870s, the first complete large dinosaur skeletons were discovered in the US and Belgium, which showed experts their distinctive anatomy and diversity.

Palaeontology is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw but you only have 10 pieces and no picture on the box
Emma Nicholls, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

In the 1960s, the identification of the smallish meat-eating dinosaur Deinonychus shook up dinosaur science, helping inaugurate a research period called the Dinosaur Renaissance.

It showed that dinosaurs could be small and agile. Some were remarkably similar anatomically to early birds like Archaeopteryx, confirming that birds evolved from small, feathered dinosaurs. It also prompted a debate over whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded like birds, contradicting the long-standing conception of them as slow, lumbering and cold-blooded.

Paleontologists put cranial fossils into computed tomography scanners to build digital models of them, gaining better knowledge of their senses, such as sight, hearing and smell.

Researchers can also now tell the colour of dinosaurs.

The dinosaur puzzle

Paleontologist Emma Nicholls works at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, home to the Megalosaurus fossils Buckland studied.

"Our understanding of dinosaurs has changed significantly since the 19th century," she told The National.

"Buckland and other gentlemen naturalists of the early 19th century would be stunned at how much we now know about dinosaurs.

“Although we understand so much more about dinosaurs than ever before there are still lots of unanswered questions. Like how they eat, move, how they are related to each other.

"It was all happening on a world map that was changing and moving. Dinosaurs roamed the earth and then when the land fragmented there were large barriers between them. We know they were all over the world.

“Palaeontology is like a 1,000-piece jigsaw but you only have 10 pieces and no picture on the box. The technology we have now would have blown Buckland’s mind, CT scans mean we can study everything about them. We now even know what colour some are.”

She said it has sometimes been difficult to locate the right rocks for fossils and access them.

“Many of the rocks are the wrong age for us to find dinosaur fossils and others are inaccessible, such as when they are under the Amazon rainforest or have been built upon, and another issue is political instability,” she said.

“There are lots of reasons why parts of the world have gaps. Jurassic rocks run up the centre of the Arabian peninsula from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Syria, the rocks are the right age but there are not many. Egypt has stood out with major finds in recent years.

“The Middle East has huge potential for a lot of exciting dinosaur finds. We just need to get the research groups together to do it.”

In Oman in 2015, a team announced they had found two incomplete Hadrosaur skeletons and fossils.

In 2019, two Polish doctors stumbled across three-toed footprints while hiking between Shobak and the ancient city of Petra in the south of Jordan.

The first dinosaur footprint in the region was discovered in 1962 in Jerusalem, and in 2008 dinosaur tracks from the Upper Jurassic period were found in Yemen. They belonged to ornithopods, which were bipedal herbivores, and sauropods, a group that includes the titanosaurs.

More recently, dinosaur footprints were spotted in Lebanon and Egypt, and last year a new kind of large-bodied meat-eating dinosaur was found at a fossil site in the Sahara by a team from Egypt’s Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Centre, which is the first centre of its kind in the Middle East.

Prof Brusatte said there are many unanswered questions.

“There is still a large amount we do not know about dinosaurs because dinosaurs were here over 150 million years ago and there were probably millions of different species once living on earth, and we have only found a handful,” he said.

“There is still a long way to go to solve this mystery of the dinosaurs and it is always evolving, of how they became so successful, so large and roamed so many parts of the world.

"There is definitely a lot we still need to do and explore, especially in the Middle East. There are more people discussing it and finding things than ever before and it is quite exciting.

“There are not many museums and universities where students can study palaeontology in the Middle East, but other places like China, Argentina, Brazil and South America that were in a similar position are now at the front line and are making leading discoveries," said Prof Brusatte.

"More students in the Middle East being offered the chance to study is the key. A number of places have discovered dinosaur fossils – Iran, Lebanon – and we need more people living there searching for them. I think there is great potential in the Middle East.

“There is a large expanse of land and great diversity of different rocks. The finds in Iran, Oman and Lebanon have opened up the possibility that there could be more dinosaur fossils hidden and I cannot wait to see these next discoveries.”

He believes AI will play a role in taking bigger steps in future.

“It is hard to predict what the next discovery will be but we are using a lot of new technology to study fossils and using a lot of AI technology. It is all the rage everywhere and the potential in palaeontology, good or bad, is vast,” he said.

“When people are celebrating the 300th anniversary it will be a field where large advances have been made in our ability to use computing power to understand the bigger picture of the dinosaur revolution.”

Dr Kear believes that what has been discovered in the last 200 years is just the tip of the iceberg.

“We are standing on the shoulders of giants and we would not be here without Buckland’s discovery 200 years ago,” Dr Kear said.

“The biggest problem is instability in countries and getting access to the regions. But I guarantee there are going to be very exciting times ahead.”

Updated: February 20, 2024, 3:39 PM