The (Very) Brief History of Dinosaurs in the Holy Land

A debate is raging over the remains of the ancient reptiles found in Israel. Some researchers want them analyzed and displayed in a museum, others believe that the real museum is nature itself

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Visitors at the Dino Park Experience in Tel Aviv, this month.
Visitors at the Dino Park Experience in Tel Aviv, this month.
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Two little girls, not very tall at all, gazed upwards. Above them soared a gigantic furry creature, hairy and brown, 10 meters (about 33 feet) high. It shook its head and opened its mouth wide. Far down his body, his hairy tail wagged. One of the little girls waved and said: “Hi mammoth!” The second added, almost in a whisper: “It’s just a dinosaur.” Roars came from hidden speakers. I stepped back with a certain amount of trepidation. The little girls didn’t look very upset and moved on to look at the next terrifying creature.

The Dino Park Experience that opened last week at Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv is a cross between “Jurassic Park” and a colorful day care center with an ice cream stand. 

Park Hayarkon and Nahal Havarim in the northern Negev are the two furthest extremes imaginable in the State of Israel. Nevertheless, they are now the two sides of the Israeli dinosaur story. In both places there is our primeval, uncontrollable attraction to the huge ancient creatures, to the mysterious marine reptiles.

A cross between “Jurassic Park” and a colorful day care center: Visitors at the Dino Park Experience in Tel Aviv, this month.

Lots of sea creatures

Sites around the world where dinosaur tracks are discovered are constantly in the headlines. Only two months ago, Australian scientists succeeded in identifying a new species of dinosaur, which they say was “the size of a basketball court.” At Kamenjak National Park in western Croatia, I once saw 12 tracks of dinosaurs that had walked along the beach 56 million years ago. 

Beit Zayit near Jerusalem, is the only place in Israel where dinosaur tracks have been found so far. To enter the area where the tracks are visible, in the center of the moshav, you first have to apply to the secretariat, ask the clerk there for the key, promise her that you’ll be right back and then open the lock and stand there gaping in amazement at a rock on which there are about 200 prints of a foot with three claws. An old open-sided shelter covers this courtyard, but rain and problematic conditions have been eroding the invaluable footprints. The feeling here is that the creatures are not getting the respect they deserve.

From Beit Zayit I drive to Jerusalem’s Givat Ram neighborhood to meet Prof. Rivka Rabinovich, a paleontologist – a specialist in ancient plant and animal life – whose field of interest is archaeozoology, the study of animal bones found in archaeological and paleontological excavations. She is also the curator of the paleontology collection at the Hebrew University National Natural History Collections. Her laboratory is a candy store dream for fossil-lovers.

At the start of the meeting, she makes our status in the world of dinosaurs clear: “Because of our location and the geological history here, we were under water for a long time. Therefore, we have an abundance of animals that lived during the period of the dinosaurs, but in the sea. There were lots of sea creatures here and fewer land animals that are known to date.

“The only remains of land animals are those tracks you saw at Beit Zayit and their condition is not good. They are getting eroded. I hope they will let us scan them soon to find out more about them. The research on them was done in the 1960s and the field has changed and developed since then. According to the tracks, it’s possible to calculate and know the animal’s size and weight of the. Its age is known from the context – from the geology, from the age of the rock. It’s always one piece.”

A dinosaur footprint at Beit Zayit, Israel.

The field is not very popular in Israel.

“Right. Dinosaurs get a very high rating and attention isn’t paid to the sea reptiles but it’s important to remember that there were just as many marine reptiles as dinosaurs in the world. Their remains have even been better preserved.”

Does the popularization seen at the dinosaur parks annoy you?

“It amuses me. In a few places there are good exhibits and reconstructions but sometimes it’s funny. I know very well that it’s possible and important to transmit knowledge, especially to children, outside of museums, but we mustn’t compromise on the way it looks. We mustn’t make this into a horror movie if we are going to teach things the right way – even children will understand it and love it.”

What are the important sites in the field in Israel?

“We have lots of sites with interesting findings – Makhtesh Ramon, Mount Sodom, Mount Menuha in the Arava [Desert] and sites beyond the Green Line like Ein Yabrud near Ofra, where there are tremendous treasures in an old quarry. It’s a special place with excellent preservation, and in the past many amazing fossils came from there, but today it’s difficult if not impossible to do fieldwork there. The biggest potential for discovering interesting findings is in the area of the phosphate mining operations at Oron. I hope we will be able to work together and collaborate with them in the future. There are initial signs of this, and I am optimistic.”

Prof. Rivka Rabinovich. 'We have an abundance of animals that lived during the period of the dinosaurs, but in the sea.'

The most talked-about site is Nahal Havarim near Sde Boker, where you worked this year.

“Right. It came to us sort of by surprise. There were reports that fossils had been exposed in the streambed during winter floods. When we arrived at the site, we discovered partially exposed vertebrae in the middle of the path. On the ground, in hard rock in the heart of the streambed. After a lot of consultations with geologists, expert conservators and other professionals we understood that it was impossible to preserve the findings in situ and we had to take them out. “We obtained all the necessary permits from the Nature and Parks Authority and ultimately a whole team of us worked there for a week in May this year. Using a difficult and complex process, we took out lumps of rock, each of which contains a vertebra or two. We didn’t find a jaw at the site. We did find a jaw in a higher bench of rock but I don’t think it belongs to the same animal.

“The vertebrae are buried in very hard rock. It’s necessary to clean them very carefully so as not to lose details linked to attributing the vertebrae to a species. We are still at a very early stage of figuring it out. Things like that take time and at the moment it appears that no one has the patience.”

What can be said about it as of now?

“It can be said that it’s a rich area. There were many findings that we left in the field but it must be stressed that it’s not of a magnitude that we haven’t known before. The fact that was unique was that it was in the middle of a hikers’ path. The scientists who worked with me, geologists Dr. Yaron Finzi and Dr. Sarit Ashkenazi-Polybuda of the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, took samples and did a geological section that will give us the context – how rich or meager the sea was. The microscopic animals will give us a lot of information.”

Nature, the real museum

The commotion surrounding the site at Nahal Havarim began right during the excavation. Rabinovitch admits she was surprised by the emotions that were aroused. Paleontology is usually a calmer field. Ancient marine reptiles are not accustomed to loud arguments.

A model of a Brachiosaurus at the Dino Park Experience in Tel Aviv, this month.

A number of tour guides, geologists and inhabitants of the region, headed by Ziv Sherzer, the head of instruction at the Sde Boker Field School, wrote a sharply worded letter to Shaul Goldstein, the CEO of the Nature and Parks of Authority, which had approved the excavation. They are angry at the removal of the findings from the site that is precious to them and serves them daily for instruction and hikes.

The signatories make it clear that they have a different view of the considerations that led, according them, to damage to the natural infrastructure of a streambed that serves a large public for hikes. “What is found in nature should stay in nature – it is the real museum,” the letter reads.

Moreover, they question the assertion that the erosion caused by floods and hikers endangered the fossils. In their opinion, the educational value of the findings is greater than the research value. They point a finger at the phosphate deposits in the Oron-Zin Valley, where they say there are endless fossils from the same period that are being pulverized the mining process. They believe the study of fossils has to focus on those areas. They also demand that the damage caused to the fossil site at Havarim be repaired and that replicas of the fossils that were removed be placed there.

In reply to the letter, the director of the Nature and Parks Authority Authority’s Southern Region, Gilad Gabbai, agreed that what is found in nature should be left in nature – unless there is a real danger to its existence. He showed understanding of the importance of science: “It goes without saying that the aspiration to leave the fossils in the field is the first priority,” he wrote, “but given the conditions on the ground, a reality was created in which it was not possible to conserve the important findings at their current quality in the field.” Gabbai also agreed that it is important to place replicas at the site in the future.

The written response to the letter from Rabinovich and the geologists who worked with her points out the importance of the findings and highlights the gap between the perspectives. According to them, the reality that emerged on the ground showed there was no possibility of conserving the fossils at the site. “In Israel it is rare to find specimens from that animal, as witnessed by the nearly zero information and specimens we have for that animal,” they wrote. “In proximity to the vertebrae, jaws and bones were found that will make it possible to identify the species of the animal and the characteristics of its habitat and the environment.

“Additional large bones that were found at the site in hard rock and were less exposed to damage were left at the site in the hope that the findings that were taken will provide a full picture of the site and the assortment of fossils there, with the understanding of the value of the fossils for hikers, educators and residents.”

Homes in Beit Zayit, near Jerusalem, the only place in Israel where dinosaur tracks have been found so far.

Testifying to the frustration of Rabinovich and her colleagues are the following lines: “To our regret the field has won more recognition as a collector’s hobby than as a scientific discipline. Many fossils have been removed from their geological context by collectors, hikers and even instructors and people from other professions. Some of these fossils are even on display at various institutions, without having been scientifically published and without any protest having arisen like what we are experiencing here. In Given that, the existing knowledge in Israel about the living world in the distant past, especially of the vertebrates, is very limited and light years behind other areas of research in geology and relative to the situation in other countries.”

The closing line of the letter is: “Lack of knowledge is not a protected value of nature.”

Sherzer preferred not to be interviewed this article.

“There is no significance to fossils that aren’t studied,” says Rabinovich, explaining that she hopes that in the future, she will be able to cooperate with the signatories to the letter as well.

Are there examples of similar cases elsewhere in the world?

“In Morocco there is a huge phosphates unit and they managed to have good cooperation. They move mountains. The moment they see findings and preserve them, it’s fine. French scientists and Moroccan partners are finding amazing things there. I hope that this will also happen here, that good cooperation with the industries at Zin and Oron will develop. It’s an important step.”

What about the replicas?

A dinosaur footprint from the Hebrew University collection, in Jerusalem.

“I hope it happens. When the conservation work is completed and we understand what it’s all about, we will scan and print it in three dimensions. It has to be decided where they will put it but it could be wonderful.”

Treasures of the lab

At the end of the conversation, Rabinovich leads me around the lab laden with treasures and shows me the findings. She opened drawers and boxes, taking out fossils of fish, snakes and other marine reptiles. I see a mammoth’s tusk, leg bones of an early elephant, a fossil of a tiny frog, fossilized neck vertebrae of a huge creature from the Menuha Formation and lots of fossils of animals I couldn’t begin to name.

Then we arrive at the laboratory where Gali Beiner, the conservator of the collections, works. For a long time, I watch her doing the delicate, difficult and nerve-wracking work of “peeling” off layers of rock and revealing a fossil from Nahal Havarim out of the stone. The thought that she is holding an object from 80 million years ago in her hand is hard to grasp.

The question of whether it would have been better to have left that fossil at Nahal Havarim, or whether it was necessary to bring it to the air-conditioned laboratory in Jerusalem is complex. It’s a difficult dilemma of values about the right place for findings of this sort. The fact that we are discussing this question and listening to experts and people for whom the issue simply burns in their bones indicates that our situation is good. In fact, maybe “burns in their bones” isn’t an expression that paleontologists like. Better to say burns in their hearts.

Yet after this search for dinosaurs in Israel ends, one clear thought emerges: Why don’t we have an equivalent of the wonderful dinosaur collection at the Natural History Museum in London? There is an entire wing devoted to dinosaurs on its ground floor. On display there are skeletons, reconstructions and excellent simulations. It’s considered one of the most popular wings in the whole museum.

Why isn’t there a similar natural history museum in Israel that displays the wealth of local findings in an orderly fashion? Why isn’t there more scientific education for the little girls in Park Hayarkon? A museum like that could be established at Mitzpe Ramon, at the edge of the crater, or in Beit Zayit, alongside the tracks from hundreds and millions of years ago. If only...

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