By Katie Bean
Dr Federico Fanti is a palaeontologist whose many incredible achievements include the discovery of Machimosaurus rex (the largest sea-dwelling crocodile ever found) as well as the development of the first tool to prevent the illegal trade of dinosaur fossils in the Gobi desert. On behalf of the YSJ, I had the remarkable opportunity to interview him about his work.
My first question is about the cover for the October issue of the National Geographic – Reimagining Dinosaurs. How have technological advances affected your ability to identify fossils?
My answer is unusual, I guess because as a vertebrate palaeontologist, I dedicated my career to finding fossils rather than applying the new methodology to properly study these specimens. The quick answer would be: there’s a huge, massive impact because technology is allowing us to do what was literally out of our brains 5-10 years ago. When I was your age, the fun was actually exploring and finding dinosaurs, and now, my own students simply spend the time using incredible technology like CT scanning or lasers. I am not very skilled at that, but I do believe that the potential is incredible. It’s a quantum leap forward. Instead of studying fossils, it’s like studying living animals. If you approach a dinosaur fossil today, you are able to study it in the same way you study any old animal. You can start to rethink dinosaurs.
What does the future hold for technological advances in the fields of palaeontology and paleobiology?
It all depends on the fossils. The number one rule that I have learnt in my personal career is that the fossil tells you what you can and cannot do. With time and with new technology, we are discovering cells, structures in the bones, brains – there is probably so much more! This gives us the opportunity to apply new technologies. This leans towards making the tools work in a better way. Now that we know what we are trying to understand, like metabolism, reproduction, eggs, we now have the opportunity to take our instruments, CT scans, microscopes and everything else and make them work even better for the lines of investigation we are trying to follow.
Now we know we can study the colours of eggs, for instance! Three years ago, this was out of our minds. So the question is, in the future, we need to find a pool of technology that will help us investigate this. The big point is, we need a big question so that we can set up the technology to allow us to find an answer. The opportunities are countless, honestly.
Will palaeontologists ever be able to determine what colours the dinosaurs were?
This is something that most people are confused about – the colour of a dinosaur. The simple answer is: we have no idea, period! The reason for that is because colours do not become fossils. What scientists are doing is finding evidence of the structures of the cells that hold the colours in living animals. From there, they investigate which colour it is. The technology is allowing us to investigate this. It’s not simple – you cannot immediately tell, for example, that a particular egg was blue – you don’t see the blue in the egg. But from looking at the composition and the microstructures, you can figure out which dinosaurs had which colours. Hopefully, the next generation will be able to say – wait a minute, we know about this specific colour!
I have read that you worked on geochemical fingerprinting to prevent the illegal trade of fossils in the Gobi desert. Could you tell me how this works and how you developed it as a tool to prevent illegal fossil trade?
It goes back to what makes a fossil. So, a fossil is made of minerals, elements that come from the sediment surrounding the bones or the teeth, or whatever. With time, what you have, instead of having your bone, the bones become, basically, a rock. It’s like making a pie. Depending on the ingredients you have, the final product will have a certain composition. This happens in Mongolia, in Canada, in Antarctica, everywhere. Every fossil is made of something. In special places like Mongolia, the list of ingredients, let’s say the minerals, the elements, is unusual. It’s different from any other place. If I can make the list of ingredients of the bones from Mongolia, I can prove that a fossil was collected there. The issue with Mongolia is that most of the fossils are poached. They are stolen from the country and sold into a black market of dinosaurs. If I can prove that the fossil belongs to Mongolia, then I can activate all the procedures to bring it back.
The fingerprint aims to do this: by looking at the ‘recipe’ of the bone, I can go anywhere on the planet and prove that the fossil was collected in Mongolia. By doing this, I can prove that a fossil was or was not stolen and I have the right to take the specimen back. That’s a weird way to explain what we are up to in Mongolia – making a list of ‘ingredients’!
You are well known for your discovery of the largest sea-dwelling crocodile yet found. How did you feel when you and your team discovered the Machimosaurus rex?
Tired! If you are a palaeontologist, every time you uncover a fossil, you’re really happy. Finding a fossil can be quite easy in several localities around the planet, but only around 1 out of 100 is a ‘good’ fossil. I spent nine years in the desert of Tunisia, in Northern Africa, collecting fossils. Finding a ‘sweet spot’ (where the skeletons are) always happens in the last week, of the last year.
This skeleton was impressive. The crocodile, which is quite big, has a skull about the size of me! We were not expecting something so spectacular – it was also nicely preserved. Unfortunately, we had very few days to collect [the specimen], so we rushed, as much as we could and we collected the skull and part of the body. We know that there are at least four more skeletons that haven’t yet been collected. Sometimes you can go back to a spot and collect dinosaurs very quickly, other times it takes time. I’m really happy because there’s now a spot I can go to collect more. Also, because it was a lucky strike that paid off nine years of working in the desert! It was worth it though, we collected other fossils and dinosaurs throughout the nine years. When you explore something for the first time, most of the time is spent actually finding the fossils. You have to repeatedly narrow down the potential localities and then finally you start digging. It’s a matter of luck – you have to be patient!
Machimosaurus rex was the largest sea-dwelling crocodile and was at the top of the food chain. What kind of prey did it have and how are you able to find this out?
This crocodile was really, really big. When we look at the environment that these crocodiles lived in, we can tell that it was a coastal one. It was a crocodile capable of living in saltwater, like a lagoon or even in the sea. Machimosaurus rex mostly ate fish and turtles. Why do I say this? Because if you look at the shape of the crocodile’s teeth, it is different from other crocodiles – they are short, large and stocky. When we have this type of teeth, they are usually ideal for crushing things. If you have a tool that is really long and thin, for instance, it is able to pierce. When you have a massive mouth, a massive snout and teeth that are short and stocky, you can crush things. In this kind of environment, this applies to turtles. Luckily enough, when we collected the skull of this animal, we found chunks of turtles nearby! I cannot tell you if that was the last meal, but definitely that this is good evidence of a predator-prey relationship.
You mentioned in a National Geographic article that rather than a rapid global extinction event, a series of local biological crises could have caused the end of the Jurassic era. What could these crises have involved?
We have considered the possibility of there being a mass extinction at the end of the Jurassic era for a long time. That would involve everything being dead in a very short amount of time – a mass extinction has no respect for any type of species whatsoever! The event at the end of the Jurassic era was based on a certain amount of fossils: some dinosaurs, some crocodiles and so on. The more we investigated this point in time, the more we found that a mass extinction was not what actually happened. If I travelled to Europe, for instance, you would see that species like these crocodiles survived with no problem during the ‘extinction’. If I travelled to South America, I would also observe similar trends in different types of animals. Therefore, instead of a massive death, we find that depending on where you were, you either lived or died.
In the case of Machimosaurus rex, this species lived in coastal and shallow water, or in tropical water. In Europe, this kind of environment vanished during this time. However, the same environment persisted in Northern Africa, on the other side of the sea. And guess what? These crocodiles simply moved to the South, following a place where they could still be alive. In the fossil record, what do you see? They are gone in Europe. If you do not find them in Africa you consider them extinct. Instead, once we keep finding them, we simply assume that the environment was no longer available to those crocodiles in Europe. So guess what? They moved – following their own ecosystem. This is what we are trying to do, we are trying to trace the ideal place for them to move and then we locate them. If you study everything from a single place, you are missing the big picture – this is what local extinction is.
Could dinosaurs or creatures like dinosaurs exist on Earth again?
In terms of size, yes. It‘s possible to have giant creatures on the planet, absolutely. The blue whale is the biggest ever to exist, and it exists right now! In the history of the planet, we do have multiple occasions where animals have become giant. Everything we see in the animals is an adaptation to an environment. It is the environment that drives evolution. If the conditions are right, we might have giant creatures again at some point in the future. We cannot have dinosaurs ever again, though, because they went extinct. Evolution is a one-way road – once you are gone, you are gone.
What advice would you offer to anyone wanting to pursue palaeontology or geology?
Something simple – study! It helps a lot. I think that geology and palaeontology are not jobs that you just end up doing – they are passions that become jobs. I definitely encourage people to get involved in geology and palaeontology – first of all, because it is related to our own planet. Where we live today is a direct result of geological processes. Secondly, because it is a job that gives you the opportunity to travel a lot and meet amazing people. You can read all of the textbooks on the planet, but when you dig up a skeleton in the desert in real life, the experience is undefeatable.
What inspired you to pursue palaeontology?
A mix of things. I grew up with the certainty that I would be a palaeontologist – I never had a plan B! Luckily enough, it turned out nicely. What I really like about my job is getting out of the office. Every time you travel, every time you visit the site, you may have expectations, but you never know exactly what will happen. Sometimes you find nothing, sometimes, you find a giant crocodile! Last time I was in the field, we found a flock of dinosaurs, eleven of them, all buried together. Two days before that, we found a giant petrified tree, and we were looking for dinosaurs! This is what I love about my job, it’s spontaneous. It’s always a challenge!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’m very passionate about my job, so I could go on for hours and hours. Our entire planet is built on fossils, so get out and explore!
In conclusion, I would like to thank Dr Fanti for his time and incredibly perceptive answers to my questions. It was great to speak to him!
[Figure 1. Talking to Dr Federico Fanti]