Jamale Ijouiher – The Desert Bones

Describe your book

The Desert Bones is the definitive text book on the Mid-Cretaceous of North Africa. Which was home to such famous dinosaurs such as SpinosaurusParalititan and Carcharodontosaurus. The twenty first century has ushered in a golden age for the field of palaeontology, and African palaeontology is experiencing the closest thing to a renaissance it has ever known.

With more researchers now working in this region than ever before and their discoveries finally going mainstream, gaining international attention and acclaim, it is often difficult to keep up to date as the field is moving so quickly now. Based on nearly a decade of study, The Desert Bones is poised to bring all the research together in one place, and brings this lost world fully into the light. 

As the only text book ever written on this topic; The Desert Bones contains all the latest information, presented in a friendly, informal tone. Uniting all previous aspects of North African research on this extinct ecosystem into a unified whole, resulting in environmental reconstructions equal to that done for the bone beds of Britain, Europe, and the American West. 

As a living document – one I hope to keep updating and reissuing periodically in line with new research – The Desert Bones will hopefully be used as a source of information for both scientists and laypersons for years to come.

What’s the central claim?

That the North African fauna and flora are much better known than most people believe; and the creation of ecological reconstructions equal to those done for Hell Creek, the Morrison Formation or Wealden group are now possible. 

And over the last few years, we have seen a movement to lump many species together into just one species.  Spinosaurus specimens from Egypt and Morocco, for instance, despite being found on either side of the continent are all considered by some to belong to just one species, Saegyptiacus. Another dinosaur, Sigilmassasaurus, is also considered to be just another Saegyptiacus specimen. Many others, such as Sauroniops and Stomatosuchus, have also been amalgamated into other taxa. 

I call this the “continual ecological province” hypothesis, that there were only a few species which were found across North Africa, from the modern Atlantic to the Red Sea. I argue that this is an oversimplification. I think previous researchers are underestimating the diversity we see across the region, which is spread across the breadth of a continent. 

And the data increasingly shows that we have at least two species of Spinosaurus, one in Egypt and one in Morocco, on either side of the continent as you would expect. It also looks likely that this also applies to the other dinosaurs, crocodiles, and most of the other fauna from this region.

Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?

One of the inspirations for this project was Jurassic West by John Foster, so it made sense to approach Indiana University Press, who produced that wonderful volume. Especially as I have never published a book before, and I thought it would be wise to find someone knowledgeable about the publishing industry to guide me down what proved to be a steep learning curve.

This book is also my magnus opus, not only is it the culmination of all my research, but a labour of love. I wanted it to be the very best book it could possibly be. And as the producers of the famous Life of the Past series, this press would be the best possible partner to work with in order to take it to the next level, and get it to as wide an audience as possible. 

Do you enjoy the writing process?

Yes, usually. Although my writing style is somewhat chaotic. While I always produce an outline before I start on any project, so I always know where I am going with it; I usually do not write chapters in any order. For instance, with Desert Bones, I wrote chapters four and five first and chapter one last.

I admit, the chapters I usually work on first are the ones that contain topics that personally interest me the most. My best work comes when I am in my wheelhouse, writing about a topic that I am not only confident with, but love to talk about.

What is your favorite book? Why?

Now, that is a hard question as I have so many. But if I were being ruthless it would have to be The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt by Nothdurft. I remember when I first read it back in 2008; I was in university studying for my palaeontology degree at the time, and I loved it so much I stayed up all night reading it.

 It is more than just my favourite book; it was my inspiration. While I have always been a student of dinosaur palaeoecology; that was when my love of African palaeontology specifically began. And I have never once looked back.

What book – for work or pleasure – would you recommend right now?

There are so many possible choices, and palaeontology is such a broad field. Off the top of my head, in addition to Jurassic West which I mentioned earlier, I would still recommend books like Mark Witton’s Pterosaurs, as well as The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte, Dinosaurs of the British Isles by Dean Lomax & Nobumichi Tamura and The Sauropod Dinosaurs by Matt Wedel & Mark Hallett.

A lot of Dinosaur books are just collections of research or conference papers, which while useful can usually be acquired from other sources. But those I have just suggested provide original discourse and a broad overview of a specific topic; which provides a perfect base for those pursuing further study.

And for pleasure; while I am not into horror at all, I absolutely love locked room mysteries, so the works of Agatha Christie are highly recommended. Also, as an old school sci-fi fan I am really into steampunk Victoriana; so, anything Jules Verneian or from the golden Age of Exploration is usually a hit with me. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World in particular still has a great deal of merit in my opinion.  

What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?

My maternal grandfather always taught me to never play devil’s advocate. A man should always say what he believes, and mean what he says.

What piece of advice might you give to young academics looking to follow in your footsteps?

No matter what your area of study is; get out there, join whatever societies are available for field of expertise, and meet the rest of your research community. As an independent researcher, and a little socially awkward, it was easy for me to just quietly keep to myself; but that was a mistake. Engaging more with my colleagues and peers, attend conferences and the like, has proven invaluable to both my research and career.

Who inspired you?

Growing up my hero was the palaeontologist, Bob Bakker. I remember his frequent, larger than life, apparencies on the documentary series Jurassica (or Paleoworld to use its alternate name). While I was born too late to take part in the dinosaur renaissance, and the renewed debate over the dinosaur origin of birds; his descriptions of powerful, energetic dinosaurs was enthralling to me as a boy. I still have an old, dogeared copy of his book, The Dinosaur Heresies, in my library; kept for sentimental reason rather than for research. 

Later I was inspired, albeit in a different way, by the researchers who worked on The Bahariya Dinosaur Project of 2000, documented in Nothdurft’s book. Unlike Bakker, I have actually written to Kenneth Lacovara and Matt Lamanna who took part in that expedition; and both were helpful as I pursued a career in palaeontology. If I can have a career half as successful as theirs, I would count myself lucky.

And special mention must go to the late professor Alan Turner of Liverpool John Moores University. He was my lecturer and one of my advisers when I was finishing my dissertation. He also did a lot to help me after I had graduated. He is still missed.

What’s next?

Currently I am working on a children’s book with artist Helmert Ravenhorst called Travels through Cretaceous Africa. For ages 8 to 12 (what Americans would consider 2nd-7th grades). Science outreach is a passion of mine, and this book is designed to educate children in all the latest research in a fun way.

On the academic front, next year I hope get a research grant for a study on some long-forgotten dinosaur fossils. No one has published on these specimens for decades, and given their suspected importance, a re-description would be greatly needed. Assuming that they can still be located after all this time, since no one that I have spoken to so far seems to know what institution they are currently housed in. I absolutely love a mystery, and tracking down these specimens is the sort of think I live for. 

I also have an idea for a follow up to The Desert Bones, a sequel discussing the Palaeontology and Paleoecology of the Mid-Cretaceous Middle East. During my research for Desert Bones, that topic kept cropping up periodically, so it makes sense to address it at some point; given considerable the overlap between North Africa and the levant. It is still in the early planning stages right now; but I have previously discussed it with my cover artist James McKay, and he seemed interested in working on it when I get the free time to finally prepare a proper outline. 

A graduate of Liverpool John Moores University with a degree in Palaeobiology and Evolution, Jamale Ijouiher is an expert on Mesozoic African biota. Ijouiher has participated in fieldwork in Britain and Morocco. The Desert Bones (2022) is published by Indiana University Press.