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Europe's "Biggest Dino" Discovered in Spain

James Owen
for National Geographic News
December 21, 2006
 
A massive Jurassic-age dinosaur—the largest ever discovered in Europe—has been unearthed by Spanish fossil hunters.

Paleontologists from the Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis in Teruel uncovered parts of the giant creature's legs, skull, spine, and ribs in Riodeva in northern Spain (map of Spain).

The new species, Turiasaurus riodevensis, measured up to 120 feet (37 meters) in length and weighed as much as 48 tons—equivalent to the weight of seven adult male elephants—the researchers say.

The 150-million-year-old dinosaur is thought to represent a new type of sauropod, the group of long-necked plant-eaters with huge tails that were the largest animals ever to have walked Earth.

Other well-known sauropods include Apatosaurus (once called Brontosaurus), Brachiosaurus, and Diplodocus.

The team's findings, reported tomorrow in the journal Science, suggest Turiasaurus was comparable in size to fossil species from North and South America, where the world's largest known dinosaurs lived. (Related: "Giant Dinosaur Discovered in Argentina" [July 28, 2006].)

"The humerus—the long bone in the foreleg that runs from the shoulder to the elbow—was as large as an adult [human]," said Brooks Hanson, Science's deputy editor for physical sciences.

The study team says the 5.9-foot (1.8-meter) humerus almost measures up to that of Argentinosaurus, an estimated 100-ton, 125-foot-long (38-meter-long) sauropod from Argentina that is generally considered the planet's biggest dinosaur.

"Argentinosaurus has bigger vertebrae than Turiasaurus, but the limb bones are only slightly bigger than Turiasaurus," said lead researcher Rafael Royo-Torres.

Heavyweight Champion

Turiasaurus indeed claims the title of dinosaur heavyweight champion of Europe, concedes paleobiologist David Martill from the University of Portsmouth, England.

He was one of the team that identified Europe's former biggest dinosaur in 2004 from a vertebra more than a meter (3.3 feet) long found on the Isle of Wight in southern England (United Kingdom map).

That find, a huge brachiosaur sauropod, measured at least 65 feet (20 meters) in length and weighed up to 40 tons.

"We knew that the Spanish had come up with a big animal and suspected they may well beat us," Martill said. "I think they have. We're second fiddle now."

Roaming the Continent

Turiasaurus belongs to a new branch of basal sauropods that had more primitive limb and bone structures than other giant species, the Spanish research team says.

These features include "primitive vertebrae with solid bone inside," Royo-Torres said, "while [brachiosaurs] had spongy bone."

He says the dinosaur shows that these sauropods originated in Europe 160 million years ago and that at least one of these more primitive sauropods "achieved gigantic size" independently of those found in other continents.

The new dinosaur had a claw on its pes, or hoof, the size of an American football, the researchers add.

The shape and worn state of its fossil teeth also indicate the herbivore ate hard vegetation, Royo-Torres said.

These teeth are similar to those found in France, Portugal, and England, suggesting Turiasaurus or closely related species of giant sauropods roamed other parts of Europe during the Jurassic period, the team says.

"I don't think there was any problem getting from Spain to England in those days," said Martill, of the University of Portsmouth.

"We're finding the dinosaurs that are turning up in Spain are the same species of dinosaurs that we're turning up here in England."

More on the Way?

Martill says the Spanish discovery suggests Europe had massive sauropods to match the size of those known from the New World.

"I'm sure that eventually we'll be turning up dinosaurs as big as the biggest," he said. "It's just that little bit of luck is needed.

"One of the reasons why perhaps we're not getting so many [in Europe] is that we don't have huge expanses of badlands like you have in North America and Argentina," Martill added.

"The amount of outcrop for us to look at is really quite small. Whereas if you go to Argentina you've got about 1,000 kilometers [620 miles] of badlands along the foot of the Andes, so you've got a much better chance of turning up remains."

Instead of finding a new dinosaur in Europe every year, he said, "we find bits of one every 10 years, so perhaps we've got to wait a bit longer before we find the real giants."

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