When he first spotted the bone, Kenneth Lacovara didn’t think it out of the ordinary. It was the first day of a dig in 2005 in southern Argentina, and he’d already found a number of dinosaur bones. And even when the spur turned out to be attached to a 6-foot leg bone, Lacovara kept his excitement in check.
But what Lacovara didn’t realize was that, by the end of the dig, he and his team would have discovered 130 bones. And these bones would, in fact, come together to create a picture of one of the most astounding creatures that ever walked the Earth.
If you look in the right places, finding a dinosaur bone in Argentina isn’t that difficult; it’s finding lots of them that counts. Indeed, the aim of any good dinosaur hunter is to discover as much of a skeleton as possible. And the more complete the specimen, the more information can be gleaned.
Fortunately, what Lacovara and his team ended up with amounted to more than 70 percent of the creature’s skeletal mass. This was more than enough to determine some truly incredible facts about the beast that the skeleton belonged to.
Lacovara was heading a team from Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences. In Patagonia, over four periods between 2005 and 2009, his group painstakingly excavated the monumental find. And eventually, after years of study and research, they had reached a stunning conclusion.
Using modern techniques, the team worked out that the dinosaur wasn’t just big; it was, in fact, an example of the biggest creature ever to have walked the planet. And amazingly, when it died it wasn’t even fully grown.
In honor of its truly gargantuan size, the paleontologists gave the new beast a suitably awe-inspiring name: Dreadnoughtus schrani. Dreadnoughtus means “fears nothing” in Latin, which is apt for a creature that weighed 65 tons – 15 tons more than a Boeing 737.
The completeness of the skeleton allowed the team to draw conclusions about the dinosaur’s size and weight. It also allowed them to estimate its age when it died some 77 million years ago. There is, however, another interesting twist in this creature’s tale.
Indeed, it’s only because of how many remains were found that scientists could determine how much the Dreadnoughtus weighed. This means, then, that it’s likely there were other, larger examples of the species.
Dreadnoughtus is just one dinosaur in the titanosaur family. And while these monsters may have eventually become enormous, they all started out in eggs no larger than soccer balls. Within two to three decades, however, they would have ballooned in size.
Intriguingly, tests on Dreadnoughtus’ bones didn’t uncover any telltale signs of ageing, which are usually found in animals that have reached their growth limit. This 85-foot-long monster, then, was probably getting bigger when it died.
Dreadnoughtus was, in fact, a herbivore. It used its massive neck to reach food, and scientists believe that it would have had to eat almost constantly to sustain its huge size. But while its enormity and strong tail meant that predators probably left it alone, this giant wasn’t without its problems.
Indeed, if it ever took a tumble, then it could well have spelled the beast’s end. Because of its huge weight, its massive plank-like ribs weren’t strong enough to hold it up. Basically, then, a stricken Dreadnoughtus would crush itself to death once it hit the ground. Luckily, though, it was unlikely that the giant needed to do much moving.
The spectacular length of Dreadnoughtus’ neck, which was made of a number of huge vertebrae – some of which were over a yard thick – meant it could reach a large amount of food wherever it was stood. Don’t, however, mistake this creature for a gentle giant.
The bones discovered in the creature’s tail showed that it was surprisingly strong and muscular. In fact, the tail was essentially a mace – and one that happened to weigh eight times as much as a T. rex.
Dreadnoughtus doesn’t, though, just provide a glimpse into the life of a single species. Rather, it reveals how all giant dinosaurs might have lived – as well as giving us a better idea of the animal kingdom’s upper size limits.
So how did this Dreadnoughtus meet its end? Well, it’s likely that a burst riverbank created silt deposits akin to quicksand, into which the dinosaur was sucked. Moreover, the fact that another, less complete specimen was also found nearby adds weight to this theory.
Scientists studying the Dreadnoughtus’ bones also discovered a number of bite marks. This suggests that, as the gigantic creature was struggling to escape, an opportunistic predator tried to take a bite or two from its massive frame.
It’s difficult to imagine a time when such enormous creatures roamed the Earth, especially when Dreadnoughtus may just be the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, a larger, more complete skeleton could be waiting to be discovered – and perhaps it will shed even more light on what was a bizarre and, to us humans, terrifying era.
Right now Dreadnoughtus is the biggest known creature to have walked the Earth. But is it actually the biggest of the titanosaurs? While we may never find out, this is definitely one of the most interesting discoveries of recent times – and a wonderful window into a time when true giants ruled the planet.