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Dino Discovery in Patagonia

Once upon a time in Patagonia, many millennia ago, gargantuan monsters roamed, and apocalyptic floods swept through wild forests... with locals ranging from the ferocious, dagger-toothed Giganotosaurus carolini, to the nimble and nifty herbivore Gasparinisaura cincosaltensis, the world’s end was once a very different place...

Back to the present, the Patagonian region has rewarded paleontologists and fossil-hunters with scores of groundbreaking discoveries, none perhaps as exciting as that in 2005, when scientists reported that Argentine Patagonia had been the site of an incredible finding: 45% of the complete remains of the skeleton of a new species of titanosaur, the colossal Dreadnoughtus schrani, were uncovered, with 70% of all bone types present. Last week, after several years of analysis and study, researchers released 3D images of what they imagine the dinosaur would have resembled. One of the very largest dinosaurs to have been found yet, it would have weighed in at about 65 tonnes, and measured 26 metres head to tail (longer than two buses one behind the other!) - just the humerus (upper arm bone) is taller than your average human being!

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Just to give an idea of quite how enormous this former resident of Patagonia would have been...

The bones of this newfound sauropod (long-necked vegetarians - only applicable to dinosaurs) were first discovered by Professor Kenneth Lacovara (Drexel University, Philadelphia), who was immediately astounded by the sheer size of the dinosaur, and were unearthed over the course of four digs. It is thought that the dinosaur would have weighed the equivalent of twelve African bull elephants, or seven Tyrannosaurus rex, and plodded through Patagonia’s temperate forests approximately 77 million years ago. Dreadnoughtus would have had to feast on huge quantities of plant matter every day to reach such a size and achieve sufficient nourishment.

The playful name it has been given by scientists reflects its absolute and astounding invulnerability. They liken these dinosaurs to dreadnoughts, the massive battleships used in the early twentieth century, and which in turn took their name from the Old English for ‘fearing nothing’. Incredibly, scientists claim that the bone samples from the Dreadnoughtus suggest that the creature had not even finished growing, making it impossible to say how enormous it had the potential to become!

HMS Dreadnought
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HMS Dreadnought

Analysis of the rock samples surrounding the gigantic animal’s skeleton suggests that it may have been cut down in its prime by a devastating flood. The soil around the dinosaur would have rapidly turned to quicksand, causing the entire skeleton to sink down below the ground, accounting for its extraordinary completeness and level of preservation. During the Cretaceous Period (towards the end of the mighty dinosaurs’ reign on Earth), Patagonia is believed to have been an area of forests and rivers, very susceptible to floods, and this is what proved to be the downfall of our super-sized sauropod. It turns out that the only thing the Dreadnoughtus should have dreaded was Mother Nature herself.

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Some sauropod relatives

Four years were spent excavating the bones, and these were then transported to Philadelphia for painstaking study and the creation of illuminating 3D reconstructions. Next year, the bones will be returned to Argentina for permanent housing in a museum, so that the public too can marvel at this priceless piece of Patagonian prehistory.

Scientists also interestingly observed a bite mark on one of the dinosaur vertebrae, suggesting that an opportunistic, carnivorous dinosaur (some of whose remains were uncovered at the scene of the crime), was snacking on the Dreadnoughtus’s corpse whilst it was only partially submerged in the quicksand.

The discovery of the gigantic Argentinosaurus, another titanosaur breaking the scales at a startling 100 tonnes, only yielded vertebrae, a shin bone and part of the hip, and thus the discovery of such a skeleton, with almost three quarters of all bone types present and correct, has generated great excitement. The skull of the Dreadnoughtus might be missing, but what has been unearthed has allowed scientists to make confident estimates of its size. The heads of long-necked dinosaurs tend to be lighter and smaller than you might expect, in order to allow the dinosaur to lift and move it whilst expending as little energy as possible, meaning that the head of this creature was probably only about the size of that of a horse. These small skulls tend to be destroyed over the eons, rather than being fossilised.

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The Argentinosaurus

This discovery will prove invaluable for researchers desperate to understand the evolution, anatomy and biology of the titanosaurs, answering the baffling question of how the bones of such creatures could have supported such an enormous body mass, which pushes the limits of the physiologically possible.

One final thing - Professor Lacovara has been keen to emphasise that, although a leaf-munching vegetarian, the Dreadnoughtus was no gentle giant! Make no bones about it - Patagonia’s latest Brobdingnagian would have been a truly fearsome aggressor, happy to crush effortlessly any foolish, would-be predators by simply leaning on them...

If you want to find out more, check out this video introducing one of the largest mammals ever to walk the face of the Earth, and if you fancy following in its (terrifyingly big) footsteps, start planning your own Patagonia voyage today!