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A Fossil Hunt in Madagascar Yields Tall Dinosaur Tales

The world's fourth-largest island divulges fossils that could revolutionize scientific views on the origins of dinosaurs and mammals

ROCKY HILLSIDE entombs some of Madagascar's oldest fossils of land vertebrates.

MARIA STENZEL National Geographic Image Collection

Three weeks into our first fossil-hunting expedition in Madagascar in 1996, we were beginning to worry that dust-choked laundry might be all we would have to show for our efforts. We had turned up only a few random teeth and bones—rough terrain and other logistical difficulties had encumbered our search. With our field season drawing rapidly to a close, we finally stumbled on an encouraging clue in the southwestern part of the island. A tourist map hanging in the visitor center of Isalo National Park marked a local site called “the place of animal bones.” We asked two young men from a neighboring village to take us there right away.

Our high hopes faded quickly as we realized that the bleached scraps of skeletons eroding out of the hillside belonged to cattle and other modern-day animals. This site, though potentially interesting to archaeologists, held no promise of harboring the much more ancient quarry we were after. Later that day another guide, accompanied by two dozen curious children from the village, led us to a second embankment similarly strewn with bones. With great excitement we spotted two thumb-sized jaw fragments that were undoubtedly ancient. They belonged to long-extinct, parrot-beaked cousins of the dinosaurs called rhynchosaurs.

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