Saturday, January 16, 2016

New Titanosaur at the AMNH: Questions Answered

In case you weren't aware, the biggest dinosaur skeleton known to science (for now) was just mounted at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  Last night was the unveiling party and I was lucky enough to have been able to attend.  At this event, curators of paleontology, Dr. Mark Norell, Dr. Michael Novacek, and paleontologist, Dr. Diego Pol, all of whom were involved in the discovery, excavation, transporting, and mounting of this beast, sat down and finally spilled a wealth of fascinating information about it on stage, right under the tail.  

The head and front part of the neck of this skeleton wouldn't fit in just the one room, and so is peeking out into the hall.

Leading up to this there have been so many questions about this new beast.  When I was at the event, I made a list of all the important information that was shared.  Here it is below for your enjoyment!

It was a titanosaur, part of a very successful group of sauropods that lived on almost every continent during the Cretaceous Period.  

It is a species new to science.  We know this because its neural arches are taller and differently shaped than those of any other known titanosaur.

It still has not been officially assigned a scientific name.  This name will come out when the formal paper, describing it, is published.  Dr. Pol did, however, elude to the fact that he plans for the name to honor where it was discovered in Patagonia, and the rancher who originally found the bones on his land and alerted the Egidio Feruglio Museum of Paleontology, enabling it to be excavated and studied for science, and ultimately put on display in a museum to be shared with anyone who visits.

Butt view of the skeleton.

The skeleton is one hundred twenty two feet long from snout tot tail, and is the largest dinosaur currently known to science.

It was not fully grown when it died.  This is because the sutures on the vertebrae were not fully fused together, a trait seen in pretty much all animal skeletons that have not finished growing yet.  Dr. Pol estimates that it was about 75% grown at the time of its death.

It is estimated to have weighed about seventy tons when alive. This is actually very light considering how large it is.  If you scaled up an elephant to that size it would weigh a lot more.  This is because this dinosaur's bones were hollow, like a honeycomb on the inside, making it lighter.  Other dinosaurs, like birds used this same adaptation to fly, while sauropods like this guy, used it to become gigantic without collapsing on themselves.  This also would have enabled the attachment of air sacks, which enable the animal to take on more oxygen as it respired.

This pillar-shaped front limb would have supported literally tons of weight.  Note how it has three claws on the back limbs but none on the front.  This seems to be the trend with titanosaurs.  Other kinds of sauropods typically had one claw on the each hand.

It lived 101.6 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous Period in what is now Argentina.

It wasn't alone.  In the same formation, there are the remains of at least five other members of the same species still to be unearthed.  According to exactly where they are in the earth, it was determined that they did not die at the same time, however.  For whatever reason, perhaps the presence of water, (since there is evidence of there having been a river nearby back then) this particular spot in Argentina attracted dying members of this species.

So far no bones from other species of dinosaurs have been discovered in that area.  However, plenty of theropod teeth were found, which were probably from scavengers, shed while eating the titanosaurs after they had died. 

The skeleton mounted on display is entirely made of casts.  The real fossils would be too heavy and delicate to get up there.  Th e real limb bones are mounted on the wall right next to it, however.

Real arm fossils are mounted on the wall next to the skeleton.

Overall about 70% of the skeleton was found.  This makes it one of the most complete giant sauropod skeletons known.  (Dreadnaughtus is still the most completely known, at about 75% complete.)

The skull was never found.  Sadly, fossilization of sauropod skulls is extremely rare.  This could be because, compared to the rest of the skeleton, the skull is particularly small and delicate.  Therefore it would have been easier for it to have been destroyed or swept away after death. The skull that is mounted on display is based on other species of titanosaurs of which the skull is known.  (only three species)

The skeleton's back has two inches of clearance from the museum room's ceiling.  This is after they renovated the place, too!  As the skeleton was being built, Dr. Norell said that he was getting ready to entertain the idea of mounting the dinosaur in a crouching position in case it was too tall to fit.

From left to right, Dr. Michael Novacek, Dr. Diego Pol, and Dr. Mark Norell share information about the new dinosaur.

What an amazing discovery!  I am personally thrilled that it has found its way all the way to my backyard in New York City where millions of people will visit it for years to come. 


  1. If Dr. Pol estimates that this giant titanosaur was about 75% grown at the time of its death, does it mean that it would be almost 50 meters as fully grown?

    1. Closer to 45 meters I think. (25% of 122 feet is 30.5 + 122 = 152.5 feet = about 46 meters) This is assuming Dr. Pol's estimate is correct. It may have been more like 80% grown according to Dr. Norell. But it was definitely not full size when it died.

    2. But as you know, in biology "size" means mass or weight. So, 25 % of 70 tons is 17.5 + 70 = 87.5 tons or according to Dr. Norell's estimate, 20 % of 70 tons is 14 + 70 = 84 tons.

    3. I actually am not familiar with "size" automatically meaning only weight or mass in biology. I asked a few colleagues of mine as well and none of them seemed to have been aware of it either. I always assumed that size was a more general term and if someone wanted to specifically refer to weight, mass, or length, he/she would say the more specific term.