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January 04, 2007

UW Paleontologist Returns from Africa with Fossils Older Than Dinosaurs

SeattlePaleontologist, Dr. Christian Sidor, is unwrapping 260 million-year-old fossils with the same enthusiasm as a kid under a Christmas tree.On Dec. 23, 2006 he returned from a month of field research in Africa’s most under developed country, Niger. He brought home several hundred pounds of fossils for further study to the University of Washington, where he is Assistant Professor of Biology and Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Burke Museum.

How old are the fossils?

All of the fossils collected are Late Permian in age (approximately 260 million years old, or about 40 million years before the first dinosaurs).

Highlights of what fossils were found:
  • The nearly complete backbone of a new, large, plant-eating reptile called a pareiasaur.
  • The skeleton of a small, new reptile called a captorhinid.
  • The lower jaw of the large captorhinid reptile Moradisaurus (a fossil named by French paleontologists in 1967).
  • The first plant fossils from the Upper Permian of Niger.
  • A 60-foot fossil log, the first of this size from the Permian of West Africa.
  • The first fossil footprints and trackways of land-living animals from the Permian of West Africa.

These fossils will take months to fully extract from the surrounding rock.All identifications are necessarily tentative.

All of the fossils collected remain the property of the Republique du Niger and will be returned to the Muse National du Niger once research has been completed.The Burke Museum will retain a permanent collection of research-quality replicas, the only such collection in the world.


The fieldwork was conducted in north-central Niger, just to the west of the Ar Mountains and along the southern border of the Sahara Desert.The nearest town was the uranium mining city of Arlit.


The expedition took place between November 21 and December 23, 2006.


The goal of the expedition was to investigate the relationship between climate and the distribution of animal and plant life in the distant past.The 8-person team searched for evidence of what lived near the center of Pangea during the Permian, approximately 260 million years ago, and what the rocks can tell us about the prevailing temperature and rainfall at that time.

“Back in the Permian period, when all of the continents were coalesced into the supercontinent Pangea, tetrapods (four-legged animals), from as far away as South Africa and Russia, look pretty similar to one another.But then we found these fossils in Niger in 2003 that look like nothing else – they seem to represent exclusively native (endemic) animals” notes Sidor. How these amphibians and reptiles could be unique, but still living on the same supercontinent, is the major question driving the project.

Returning to Niger in 2008

With days running out in the expedition, Sidor and his team discovered a reptile graveyard that proved too extensive for them to complete excavations.“Unfortunately, we had to re-bury the site because it was just getting too big. The bones just kept appearing, one after another.I think we could go back and work there for two weeks, no problem”, says Sidor.

Sidor’s grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will allow the team to return in 2008 to complete their excavations and conduct further explorations of the barren, rocky region.

Previous Expeditions

Sidor describes the 2006 expedition as among the easiest he has led.“It was amazing – we arrived and the permits were waiting for us”, he quips.It doesn’t hurt that this is the 4th time he’s traveled to Niger.In 2003, he led a similar expedition based on a grant from the National Geographic Society, and in 2000 and 1997 he journeyed to Niger to help dig dinosaurs while still a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

Sidor has also done fieldwork in Antarctica, Brazil, Laos, Morocco, and South Africa.This June he will lead an expedition to Tanzania to search for fossils of similar age (sponsored by National Geographic).

Team Members

Accompanying Dr. Sidor on this expedition was UW undergraduate Tara Smiley, a double major in biology and geology, as well as an international team of paleontologists, geologists, and paleobotanists. The complete team roster follows:

  • Christian Sidor, Ph.D.Assistant Professor of Biology and Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, University of Washington.
  • Tara Smiley.Undergraduate student at the University of Washington.
  • Neil Tabor, Ph.D.Geologist at Southern Methodist University. (co-Principal Investigator on NSF grant)
  • Stephanie Thomas. Graduate student at Southern Methodist University.
  • Dan Chaney.Museum Specialist, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Cindy Looy, Ph.D.Postdoctoral Researcher, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Roger Smith, Ph.D.Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, South African Museum, Cape Town.
  • Jean-Sebastien Steyer, Ph.D.Researcher, National Museum of Natural History, Paris.
  • Abdoulaye Maga, Director of the Institute for Research in Human Sciences, University of Niamey, Niger.
  • Oumarou Ide, Researcher at the Institute for Research in Human Sciences, University of Niamey, Niger.

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