Fossil discovery in Pahang increases interest in paleontology

Prehistoric find: (From left) Prof Mohd Sofian, Adnan, Dr Mohd Hamdi and Dr Sone, unveiling the dinosaur tooth that was found in Pahang.

MALAYSIA - Many Malaysian children have grown up having a fascination with the giant reptiles that walked the earth millions of years ago - dinosaurs.

The interest for the prehistoric creatures and paleontology (the study of fossil organisms and related remains) for most has remained just that - a fascination.

However, with the recent discovery of a dinosaur fossil, they can actually take their "enchantment" for these beasts to the next level - a career in a Paleontology - which previously had never been a practical option.

Earlier this week, researchers from Universiti Malaya (UM) unveiled the dinosaur tooth that was uncovered in the rural interiors of Pahang. This is the first time remains of a dinosaur have been found in Malaysia.

The tooth, measuring 23mm long and 10mm wide, has been identified as one belonging to a dinosaur in the Spinosauridae family and is believed to be from the Cretaceous period, the last period in the Mesozoic era after the Jurassic period. The Mesozoic era is a geological time interval from about 252 million to 66 million years ago.

The researchers have not conducted a radiometric dating - a method to ascertain the age of geological finds - but say the tooth was found in sedimentary rock from the Mesozoic era.

UM Department of Geology Assoc Prof Dr Masatoshi Sone, the lead researcher in the expeditions that started in September 2012, said that this discovery would help to develop the field of paleontology in Malaysia.

"Paleontology is a very small field in Malaysia," he said, explaining that it was a field that combined both geology and biology.

He said that this discovery might inspire more students to enter the field as it was now possible to conduct excavations in Malaysia.

"Sedimentary rocks ... which are a good place to start searching for dinosaur fossils, are distributed in the central part of the peninsula," he said, adding that this distribution stretched from the north, above Pahang, to the south and even extended to certain areas in Terengganu.

When asked what prompted him to start searching in Pahang, Dr Sone said that it was a big state which had the largest distribution of Cretaceous sediment.

"We had to find new excavation sites, for example, construction sites," he said.

Dr Sone added that it was difficult to look for fossils in Malaysia because there was a lot of vegetation and the search for fossils could only be conducted in areas where the ground was bare.

"There is a lot of development in Pahang now. We had to start here otherwise in a few years, there would be new vegetation," he said.

The researchers, as well as the Pahang state government, are keeping the exact excavation site a top secret at the moment.

"Until the area is properly cordoned off, we cannot reveal the exact location of the site," said Dr Sone.

"Sometimes non-researchers might go in with an excavator and dig up the ground," he said, adding that such incidents had occurred in Thailand and Laos - the only other two Southeast Asian countries in which dinosaur remains have been found.

Although the dinosaur has been identified as belonging to the Spinosauridae family, Dr Sone said that they were still unable to identify the exact species of the dinosaur due to insufficient information.

However, the tooth had the significant characteristics similar to that of other spinosaurid.

"Their teeth are unique compared to other carnivorous dinosaurs ... the teeth of the representative spinosaurid dinosaurs have vertical ridges and are conical in shape," he said.

Dr Sone added it was likely other bones would be uncovered in time.

"The first fossil is always the hardest to find but, once it has been found, many others are likely to follow. Now we know the distribution of the spinosaurids extends to Malaysia as well," he said .

Also present at the unveiling was Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob, UM deputy vice-chancellor (Academic and International) Prof Dr Mohd Hamdi Abd Shukor and the university's science faculty dean Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Sofian Azirun.

Adnan said that he has instructed the forestry department and police to protect the excavated area.

"We want to prevent people from coming into the area. Some people might even come to do their own excavation and sell (their finds) to other parties," he said.

He said that authorities would come up with a plan on how best to beef up security in the area.