A farmworker in Argentina’s Patagonia region came across some extraordinarily huge dinosaur bones. Then in 2013 scientists from Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio in Trelew began work on the site, which is about 135 miles from the city. And what they found is totally mind blowing.
In fact, Patagonia has long been a rich source of fossilized dinosaur bones. One creature found there in the past is the huge Argentinosaurus, one of a family of oversized dinosaurs called the titanosaurs. These titanosaurs were sauropods, herbivorous beasts with extremely long necks and tails, and disproportionately small heads. The Diplodocus and the Brontosaurus were both sauropods, for example.
The Argentinosaurus, which lived around 95 million years ago, was discovered by an Argentinean rancher in 1987. The man found a leg bone that was so big he thought it was a fossilized tree trunk. He also uncovered a single vertebrae as large as an adult human being.
When it was found, Argentinosaurus was believed to have been the largest dinosaur ever to have walked the Earth. At the time of its discovery, calculations estimated that it would have weighed as much as 110 tons. However, researchers later revised that down to a still formidable 77 tons.
In fact, it’s only relatively recently that the science of paleontology has enabled us to understand more fully the meaning of fossilized bones from dinosaurs and other creatures. Nonetheless, way back in the 6th century BC Xenophanes of Colophon, a Greek philosopher, realized that fossilized sea shells indicated that dry land had at some point in the past lain beneath the sea.
But it wasn’t until more than 2,000 years later that a German cleric called Athanasius Kircher realized that huge fossil bones were the remains of extinct species, although he thought the bones were from human giants. Then in 1796 French zoologist Georges Cuvier published his findings showing that fossilized remains of what looked like an elephant were in fact the bones of an extinct species, the mammoth.
Cuvier’s work paved the way for modern paleontology, and he went on to study other dinosaur fossils, including a Pterodactyl unearthed in Bavaria, Germany. By the middle of the 19th century, paleontology was established as a respected branch of science. It seems that few who studied them now believed that the large bones dug out of the ground were from a lost race of human giants.
But let’s shift our attention back to the gigantic bones found in Patagonia. Once the farmworker who’d originally discovered them alerted the authorities, a team of archaeologists headed by Dr. Diego Pol and Dr. Jose Luis Carballido traveled to the site to undertake a thorough excavation.
And in paleontological terms, the researchers discovered a veritable treasure chest of remains. There were a large number of bone fragments in varying states of completeness. The fossils represented seven individual dinosaurs and, the BBC reported, were in “remarkable condition.”
Moreover, it turned out that these remains belonged to a new species of sauropod, which was of the titanosaurus family just like the Argentinosaurus. And this new dinosaur toppled the Argentinosaurus from its proud position as the largest dinosaur known to science. No doubt about it, Argentinosaurus is still enormous, it’s just no longer the most enormous land animal that we know about.
You’ll recall that researchers had estimated the weight of the Argentinosaurus as being some 77 tons. Well, this new creature, the paleontologists deduced, would have weighed as much as 85 tons when it stomped across the surface of the Earth during the late Cretaceous period.
These estimations of the newly discovered dinosaur’s weight were based on the dimensions of the biggest thigh bone that had been found at the site. The paleontologists subsequently explained to the BBC, “Given the size of these bones, which surpass any of the previously known giant animals, the new dinosaur is the largest animal known that walked on Earth”
So, this Patagonian giant weighed the equivalent of 14 adult elephants, which are the largest land animals alive today. And its other dimensions are just as impressive. From tail to nose, this animal would have measured around 130 feet. And, neck extended, it would have stood more than 60 feet tall. That’s the height of a seven-floor building.
This forest-dwelling animal wandered the Patagonian landscape from about 100 million to 95 million years ago. When the discovery was announced, staff from the Egidio Feruglio Museum told the BBC, “It will be named describing its magnificence and in honor to both the region and the farm owners who alerted us about the discovery.” And that formal title turned out to be Patagotitan mayorum.
Although there’s no doubt that this Patagonian discovery is highly significant, some scientists have sounded a note of caution. One paleontologist from the Natural History Museum in London, Dr. Paul Barrett, told the BBC that this find was “a genuinely big critter. But there are a number of similarly sized big sauropod thigh bones out there.”
“One problem with assessing the weight of both Argentinosaurus and this new discovery is that they’re both based on very fragmentary specimens. No complete skeleton is known, which means the animal’s proportions and overall shape are conjectural,” Barrett continued. “So it’s interesting to hear another really huge sauropod has been discovered, but ideally we’d need much more material of these supersized animals to determine just how big they really got.”
But Diego Pol, one of the excavation leaders, told The Independent that the discovery’s significance was reinforced by the large number of bones found. “This is an important finding, because up to now we knew the existence of really giant dinosaurs – there are a few species similar to this animal in size – but they were known from only a few bones.”
And Pol added that with further tests, the bones would reveal much more information. “These studies are necessary to see whether they were able to run or not, to stay on their hind legs to reach for really high leaves in the trees,” he explained. “All these are the questions and answers that help us understand these animals as biological, living organisms.”
In the meantime, if you happen to be down in the Argentinean part of Patagonia, pay a visit to the city of Trelew. A life-size replica of Patagotitan mayorum has been erected on the northern edge of the city. Based on a digital reconstruction created from the fossil bones, this impressive facsimile gives onlookers a sense of the scale of these extraordinary animals.