Fossil of gargantuan dinosaur unearthed in Egypt
By Will Dunham, Reuters, 05/31/01
WASHINGTON - Fossilized remains of a gargantuan plant-eating dinosaur, the second most massive animal ever to walk the Earth, have been unearthed in a desert oasis in Egypt at a site that eons ago was a lush coastal paradise, researchers said Thursday.
The discovery of a partial skeleton of Paralititan stromeri was made by 31-year-old University of Pennsylvania doctoral student Joshua Smith, who went on a dinosaur hunt at a remote site that had yielded spectacular finds in the first half of the 20th century in expeditions led by German paleontologist Ernest Stromer von Reichenbach.
But the fossils of the four new dinosaurs Stromer uncovered were lost to the world during World War Two when British warplanes bombed the Bayerische Staatssammlung museum during a raid over Munich on April 24, 1944. Stromer's excavation site remained largely ignored in the decades since then.
Paralititan (pronounced pah-ral-ih-TY-tan and meaning "tidal giant") lived 94 million years ago during the middle of the Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic Era. The long-necked, long-tailed quadruped looked much like the familiar Brontosaurus (formal name Apatosaurus) that lived tens of millions of years earlier, except that its back may have been studded with bony body armor as protection from predators.
The finding was published in the journal Science.
"It was an enormous dinosaur by anybody's reckoning," Smith, who was 29 when he found it, said in an interview.
"We think that a large individual might have massed about 70 tons, 75 tons maybe and it might have approached 100 feet in length. As far as tall, stack four African elephants on top of each other. That's about the height. It would look through a third-story window without much problem."
First runner-up in the weight category
The only dinosaur known to be heavier than Paralititan is Argentinosaurus, which looked much like the new dinosaur (both are classified as titanosaurid sauropods) but is estimated to have been about 7 percent more massive. The remains of only one example of these two colossal dinosaurs exist.
Smith found the partial skeleton preserved in fine-grained sediments full of plant remains and root casts in the Bahariya Oasis in the Sahara desert some 180 miles southwest of Cairo. He said the evidence suggests that the arid Bahariya site once resembled the tropical mangrove coasts of Florida, a low-energy, shallow water area of tidal flats and tidal channels. He compares it to the Everglades.
And based in part on Stromer's earlier finding of three massive carnivorous dinosaurs at the site, Smith said the area must have been teeming with life.
Smith believes the massive herbivore was standing on the edge of a tidal channel in very shallow water when it died.
His team also found evidence that the carcass had been scavenged by a flesh-eating dinosaur, including a tooth that may come from Carcharodontosaurus, whose name means "shark-tooth lizard" and whose size, 45 feet long, was comparable to Tyrannosaurus rex. In addition, the pelvis was ripped apart as if it had been eaten.
It's unclear whether Paralititan lost a life-or-death struggle with the predator or became a meal after dying for other reasons, Smith said. "All we know is that the animal died and somebody came along and munched on it."
Partial remains found
Smith said the skeleton of Paralititan is only 20 to 25 percent complete. Most impressive is a humerus (upper forelimb bone) that measures 6 foot, 7 inches long. The remains also include several vertebrae, ribs and both shoulder blades. The Penn team also found fossils of fish, sharks, turtles, marine reptiles and other dinosaurs.
Dumb luck played a role in the discovery, Smith admits. He and University of Pennsylvania graduate student Matthew Lamanna, who at age 25 is a co-author of the study, dreamed up the idea of finding the sites that had been so productive for Stromer, who worked there extensively starting in 1911.
Smith said in 1999 he tagged along on another Penn expedition to Egypt and was given all of two days to search for dinosaurs. Another problem was finding the Stromer's exact site because he did not leave behind any maps or directions.
Scientific literature found in Cairo pointed the way, but Smith ended up in the wrong place anyway. But as luck would have it, on Feb. 23, 1999, Smith spotted from the window of his Toyota Land Cruiser three pieces of Paralititan's forelimb.
He said he may have stumbled on "dinosaur heaven," adding: "Nobody thought for a second that we'd find anything, including me. Paralititan was the first thing we found the first morning we looked. It's just ridiculous."