BUENOS AIRES – A few months ago, Argentine scientists found the remains of a giant dinosaur. Now they look forward to digging up hundreds more fossils, but what they really want is the big one’s head.
In recent years, the discovery of fossils of such sauropods — giant plant-eaters with thin necks and a long tail — in Argentina’s Patagonia region confirmed that the remote area was once home to the largest dinosaurs to roam the Earth.
In May, scientists announced they had found the remains of a humongous 80-ton sauropod and bones of six other specimens of the creature.
It marked a milestone for paleontologists and prompted them to plan more digs for the southern hemispheric spring starting in September and summer starting in December.
The goal is to find a sauropod skull, which could come up as diggers gingerly search amid the rocks for more fossils.
“All we have from the skull is a tooth,” said Jose Luis Carballido, a paleontologist from the Egidio Feruglio Museum in the city of Trelew, 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) south of Buenos Aires.
“Finding the skull is particularly important because there are not too many skulls from sauropods from this stage of the evolution we believe these animals went through,” he said.
Until now scientists have seen skulls from an earlier evolutionary stage and then from a later one, Carballido said.
The remains found this year are from an animal that was “in the middle of that evolution, but we do not know what its head looked like,” he added.
Alejandro Otero, a paleontologist from the University of La Plata and a member of the team from the Trelew museum, said this find in Patagonia is a veritable Pandora’s box of fossils, with just 30 percent of the project’s work completed.
“It ended up being the biggest find in the world, with seven specimens in the same place,” said Otero.
“With all that we have left to do, it is like a box of surprises for what will come later.”
Scientists taking part in the dig reckon that after the nearly 100 days of the first phase, now there are least two more years of digging ahead.
“We expect something as impressive as what we have been seeing,” said Otero.
Carballido added that while only 30 percent of the fossil extraction work is done, already 200 fossils have emerged.
“Two or three years of work remain,” he said.
“The big hope is to find the skull or part of it,” added Carballido, who coordinates the field work.
The discovery of the biggest dinosaur ever found happened on a private estate 260 kilometers west of Trelew when a worker spotted what would turn out to be the largest femur ever found. It was a whopping 2.4 meters long.
The bone that belonged to a sauropod, a colossus that lived some 90 million years ago, was prepared for display last weekend at the museum in Trelew, drawing thousands of visitors.
“We hope to be able to begin a new phase of excavation in September but it is still not a sure thing. The idea is to bring out the bones that are already exposed,” said Carballido.
“If we are lucky and all goes well, we want to keep excavating from November through December.”
The team’s ultimate goal is to reconstruct the enormous sauropod from head to tail someday — and be able to say something about how it lived.