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This plesiosaurus is one of the fossils in the U of C's Biological Sciences building.
Katy Anderson/the Gauntlet

U of C's North American Arctic Institute researcher

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Extreme paleontologist Dr. Hans Larsson gave a talk to a near-full house at the Calgary Zoo Mon., Nov. 5. Extreme because the tall, young, wiry, and bearded doctor hunts for dinosaur fossils in some seriously inhospitable conditions.

"The best places to look for fossils are places where there are no people, and no plants," said Larsson.

This means spending weeks 500 kilometres from the nearest paved road, in places like the Sahara desert and the Canadian high arctic. He has dealt with 47 degree heat, minus 40 degree cold, hand-sized spiders, polar bears, sink holes and sand storms, all in the name of finding some new types of Jurassic giants, he explained.

The McGill University professor holds the McGill Redpath museum Canada Research Chair and is sponsored by the University of Calgary's North American Arctic Institute.

Larsson started his speech noting he was going to keep his discussion to a "discovery channel level." He described the Sahara in Niger as "the backdrop for a Mad Max movie," but also explained how it was incredible to be in a place where you can actually observe continental plates moving away from each other, which is only possible because of it's barrenness. Larsson described the Canadian arctic in Jul. as a magical place, where everything comes to life for such a short period of time.

But, above and beyond the scenery, what Larsson noted he is really looking for is fossils, hopefully something vertebrate, which is his area of specialty.

In all his walking--sometimes 25 kilometres a day--Larsson has literally stumbled upon five new species of dinosaurs, not including sharks, reptiles, fish, and plant fossils.

"We just wander around until we find something," he said.

Larsson "stumbled" upon a species of prehistoric crocodile in the middle of the Sahara, a creature with a six-foot long skull and whose weight is estimated at 8.6 tonnes. He explained his group found it really interesting that in the same location they also found no fewer than four other crocodile species.

"That doesn't happen anymore," he chuckled. "Different crocodiles in the same habitat like to eat each other."

This suggests the desert was once a superlush, tropical marsh, where there were enough niches for many different species, explained Larsson.

Larsson also described how he chose to name a new species of Sauropod after a local legend. In Niger, locals tell their children not to go out at night or the "Jobar" will get them. Locals would point to the bones in the sand as proof of the creature that hunted children. When naming the new species, Larsson and his University of Chicago graduate supervisor Dr. Paul Sereno decided to incorporate the tale, naming the new dinosaur "Jobaria Tiguidensis".

"We really like to involve the local culture in what we do," said Larsson. Larsson believes it fosters a feeling of ownership among locals when they understand these giant creatures once roamed in their backyards.

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