Oil-Rich Angola Is the Next Frontier for Dinosaur Hunters

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Mike Hutchings / Reuters

Youths play as the sun sets over a beach in the capital Luanda January 23, 2010.

As a child, Ana Soraya Marques grew up hearing about Kianda, a mythical sea creature worshiped in Angola, a country whose rocky west coast borders the Atlantic Ocean. “In a certain season, the waves, the sea, turns very agitated,” says the 22-year-old native of Luanda, Angola’s capital. “So the fisherman, they pray to her,” she says, “they ask her for more fish and not to destroy the houses.”

Today, Marques is learning about different Angolan monsters — prehistoric ones. She is part of PaleoAngla, an international paleontological team studying the fossilized million-year-old remains of mosasaurs (the cold-blooded equivalent of killer whales), sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs), and pterosaurs (hollow-boned flying reptiles). “At first I was only finding shark teeth, I wasn’t really excited,” says Marques. Then, she says, “we found Arsinoitherium teeth,” a rhino-like mammal with a v-shaped front horn. “That was the best finding.”

It’s ground-breaking work. In the 1960s, there was paleontological research done in Angola by colonial Portuguese scientists, but that was before a civil war ravaged the country for decades. “There had been no boots on the ground, we knew there was an opportunity,” says Louis Jacobs, a palaeontologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Jacobs is presenting some of his team’s findings to the prestigious Geological Society of America late October. The team has already published on Angolatitan adamastor, a new species of dinosaur discovered in 2005 — one of the first found in Angola — named after a sea beast once feared by Portuguese sailors. “We’re finding fossils no one has ever found before,” says Jacobs.

Angola, while under-researched, is in a unique geographic position. Unlike the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose ground is covered by jungle, or Namibia, where deserts have eroded the land, Angola’s yellow rocks have preserved a wealth of fossils. Like stretches of Argentina and Chile, Angola is a prime location for scientists to uncover evidence of a whole, lesser-known realm of prehistoric life in the southern hemisphere.

Some 300 million years ago, the earth was a supercontinent, Pangaea. Then the supercontinent broke in two. The north eventually formed North America and Asia, the south South America and Africa. Most of the best-known dinosaurs — the tyrannosaurus rex and triceratops, for example — come from the northern hemisphere. “The trajectory of fossil exploration went to Western Canada and Asia,” says Jonah Choiniere, a palaeontologist at Wits University in Johannesburg.

“So little is known from that part of the world, it’s an exciting time to be looking in,” says Mark Norell, chairman of palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “It will help us understand the climate right before the asteroid hit,” he says, referring to the theory that suggests an asteroid hit the planet near Mexico 65 million years ago and wiped out most of the world’s dinosaurs. “It’s a really interesting time in the history of the Earth.”

It’s also an interesting time in Angola. Following the end of the 27-year civil war, the country has emerged as Africa’s largest oil producer behind Nigeria. Expats keen to cash in on the oil boom have flocked to Luanda, the capital, making it one of the world’s most expensive cities, despite much of the rest of the country living in poverty. Angola’s resource wealth goes hand-in-hand with the potential dinosaur bonanza beneath its soil: the oil being drilled today is formed from the decomposed matter of animals and plants living millions of years ago, the ones Jacobs and his team are digging up.

Marques hopes that PaleoAngola will help kick-start interest in dinosaurs in the country. Since she was a kid, she has been interested in archeology and palaeontology. “But in Angola we don’t have archaeology,” she says, “so I had to find another thing to study.” Now, she’s in Portugal doing an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Évora, preparing for a career in the ancient world. “When I first started working with PaleoAngola, my parents were scared, they didn’t know where I would work in the future,” says Marques. “But now they accept it,” she says. “This is what I want to do.”