Paul Sereno does not know exactly what Oklahoma looked like 120 million years ago, but the University of Chicago paleontologist has more than an educated guess, thanks to a giant carnivorous dinosaur called acrocanthosaurus that was found near Atoka.
“It would have been probably a lot wetter and subtropical with rivers flowing through, and it was such a river that a couple of these specimens fell into, got buried and fossilized,” said Sereno, who delivered a presentation last month on the new 40-foot mounted skeleton of acrocanthosaurus that was recently installed at the Jasmine Moran Children's Museum in Seminole.
“There were forests, and the trees looked a lot like sequoias. Very verdant, and there were lots of long-necked dinosaurs and other kinds of dinosaurs this animal was preying upon, and some of those have been found,” he said. “It was a giant meat-eater and the most famous dinosaur from Oklahoma — found only in Oklahoma, a dinosaur that really was king of the predators 120 million years ago here in North America. It roamed beyond Oklahoma, but Oklahoma has the best remains.”
Sereno, 55, is a frequent visitor to the land of acrocanthosaurus, but his work as a dinosaur hunter has taken him to every continent on the planet. He began his career with an expedition to the Andes Mountains, where his team found the earliest known specimens of dinosaurs — herrerasaurus and eoraptor, which dated to around 225 million years ago.
But one of his most famous discoveries took place in 1997 and 2000 in the Sahara desert of northern Africa: a 40-foot, 8-ton ancestor of the called sarcosuchus, known popularly as “SuperCroc.” Sereno said that nearly every animal has its “day in the sun,” but SuperCroc was practically the king of the cretaceous era.
“This crocodile became a dinosaur eater,” Sereno said. “At about 100 million years ago ... it would wait for a dinosaur to come down close to the water, and it would launch itself at this dinosaur. So we reconstructed this monster. We know what crocodiles and alligators are like today, so when you see this thing it's really amazing.”
His explorations of the Sahara took place for months at a time, in 125-degree heat. Sereno said that there are expanses of that desert in which he could travel 500 miles in any direction and not see any vegetation. During these periods of study, he would live on dehydrated, heavily salted food and as much water as possible.
And somehow, he learned to love it.
“This is one of the greatest exercise and diet programs in the world,” he said of his digs in the Sahara. “Every time I come back, I feel like a million bucks.”
These are the kind of stories that fascinate young people who attend Sereno's presentations, and since 1999, Sereno has made education a cornerstone of his work. He is a co-founder of Project Exploration, a Chicago-based organization that reaches out to segments of the student population that are traditionally underexposed to science. Sereno said he struggled as a high school student and barely got into Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., but education was important to the Sereno family — all six siblings earned doctorate degrees — and Paul Sereno's attitude was dramatically changed when he discovered the possibilities for adventure in science.
So now Sereno is working to bring new, fresh minds to his profession, and whenever he visits the Jasmine Moran Children's Museum or the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman, he hopes he is speaking to some future explorers. And, he said, there has never been a better time to be a paleontologist.
“We are finding more dinosaurs today — this year — than we've ever found before,” he said. “It's a renaissance. The world, as small as it's getting with all the digital resources we have, is still the most unexplored place you could imagine. I have been in places in the Sahara where no human has set foot.”
Sereno knows this, he said, because the SuperCroc remains he found in 1997 and 2000 were practically sitting on the surface of the sand. And because of the high concentration of dinosaur fossils in Oklahoma, it's not uncommon for people to find an important artifact, possibly part of an acrocanthosaurus, on their own land.
“People in the southwest and southeastern corners of Oklahoma are finding things on their ranches and they are bringing them in, and they realize what they are now,” Sereno said. “It's not a fossilized log. It's a bone.”
We are finding more dinosaurs today — this year — than we've ever found before. It's a renaissance. The world, as small as it's getting with all the digital resources we have, is still the most unexplored place you could imagine. I have been in places in the Sahara where no human has set foot.”