Con­tender found for largest di­nosaur

The dis­cov­ery of the 122-foot-long Patagoti­tan may­o­rum is help­ing sci­en­tists piece to­gether the lin­eage of long-necked, plant-eat­ing ti­tanosaurs

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KRIS­TINE PHILLIPS kris­tine.phillips@wash­post.com

Weigh­ing nearly 70 tons, heav­ier than 10 adult African ele­phants, the di­nosaur was the largest crea­ture to ever walk on Earth, ac­cord­ing to some sci­en­tists.

The plant-eat­ing an­i­mal first made head­lines in 2014, af­ter a rancher from the Patag­o­nia re­gion in Ar­gentina dis­cov­ered a fos­sil bone. Last year, the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in New York added a cast of the 122-foot-long crea­ture to its ex­hibit. Its neck and head are so long that they ex­tend out­side the gallery.

De­spite its fame, the di­nosaur did not have an of­fi­cial sci­en­tific name — un­til now.

A re­port pub­lished last week in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal So­ci­ety B calls it Patagoti­tan may­o­rum. “Patagoti­tan” can be in­ter­preted as “gi­ant from Patag­o­nia,” and “may­o­rum” is a trib­ute to the rancher fam­ily that hosted a team of pa­le­on­tol­o­gists, ge­ol­o­gists, stu­dents and vol­un­teers as they ex­ca­vated dozens of fos­sils from the area.

More than 150 Patagoti­tan fos­sils have been un­earthed there over the past few years. Find­ing a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of fos­sils be­long­ing to the same species is not rare — ex­cept for such a big an­i­mal, di­nosaur spe­cial­ist José Luis Car­ballido said in an email.

“It’s a real pa­le­on­to­log­i­cal trea­sure,” Car­ballido notes on the mu­seum's web­site. “There were lots of fos­sils in great preser­va­tion, prac­ti­cally in­tact, some­thing that does not hap­pen of­ten.”

Th­ese dis­cov­er­ies have al­lowed sci­en­tists to cre­ate the most com­plete anatomic re­con­struc­tion of any large ter­res­trial her­bi­vore in the planet’s his­tory, ac­cord­ing to the Egidio Feruglio pa­le­on­tol­ogy mu­seum in Trelew, Ar­gentina.

Patagoti­tan may­o­rum, which lived about 100 mil­lion years ago dur­ing the late Cre­ta­ceous Pe­riod, is con­sid­ered a ti­tanosaur, a di­verse lin­eage of plant-eat­ing, long-necked di­nosaurs with long tails that walked on four legs.

Ti­tanosaurs var­ied greatly in size, with the small­est species weigh­ing as much as an adult ele­phant and the largest ones weigh­ing in at more than 60 tons. The fos­sil find in Ar­gentina gave sci­en­tists a clearer pic­ture of how ti­tanosaurs evolved in terms of their body mass, with the re­search re­veal­ing that most of the gi­ant ti­tanosaurs dis­cov­ered there be­longed to a sin­gle lin­eage, ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum.

“This means that the evo­lu­tion of ex­treme gi­gan­tism within ti­tanosaurs hap­pened but only once and not in mul­ti­ple sep­a­rate events,” Diego Pol, one of the authors of the re­port, said in a state­ment. “We can see some other cases of size in­crease rel­a­tive to the an­ces­tral size of ti­tanosaurs, but none of them was as dra­matic as the one seen in this group and ex­em­pli­fied by Patagoti­tan.”

The crea­ture’s most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence, Car­ballido said, is the amount of in­for­ma­tion it gave to re­searchers.

Sci­en­tists have found fos­sils of other gi­ant di­nosaurs in the ti­tanosaur lin­eage such as Ar­genti­nosaurus and Puer­tasaurus in the Ar­gen­tine desert. But sci­en­tists had to rely on a lim­ited num­ber of bones to get a sense of their weight and size, Car­ballido said.

With the Patagoti­tan, how­ever, sci­en­tists were able to find a humerus (arm bone) and fe­mur (thigh bone), he said.

Some sci­en­tists re­main cau­tious about pro­claim­ing it the big­gest of them all.

Mathew Wedel, a pa­le­on­tol­o­gist at the Western Uni­ver­sity of Health Sci­ences in Cal­i­for­nia, told Smith­so­nian Magazine that it is more likely that Patagoti­tan is com­pa­ra­ble in size to Ar­genti­nosaurus, the pre­vi­ous record holder.

“I think it would be more ac­cu­rate to say that Ar­genti­nosaurus, Puer­tasaurus and Patagoti­tan are so sim­i­lar in size that it is im­pos­si­ble for now to say which one was the largest,” Wedel said.

More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/speak­ing-of-sci­ence

JOSÉ LUIS CAR­BALLIDO

A re­con­structed Patagoti­tan may­o­rum, a 70-ton ti­tanosaur dis­cov­ered in the Patag­o­nia re­gion of Ar­gentina. Some sci­en­tists be­lieve that it was the largest di­nosaur that walked the Earth.

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