ALMANAC BETWEEN ISSUES June 5, 2001
Presenting a New Genus of Colossal Dinosaur from an Ancient Coastline
Penn researchers have unearthed a new genus of gargantuan dinosaur in a corner of Egypt that paleontologists had all but ignored since World War II, when earlier finds stored in German museums were blasted from existence by Allied warplanes. In the June 1 issue of Science, the Penn team reports on its discovery of Paralititan stromeri, one of the most massive animals ever to walk the earth, and presents evidence that the quadruped walked in ancient mangrove swamps in what is now the Sahara Desert.
A 67-inch humerus found by the Penn team suggests that the newfound creature is very close to the size of Argentinosaurus, currently the largest dinosaur known to man. Lead author Joshua B. Smith, a Penn doctoral student in earth and environmental science and the discoverer of Paralititan, estimates that the giant four-legged beast may have measured 80 to 100 feet long and weighed 60 to 70 tons.
As a huge dinosaur that was apparently traipsing through an ancient mangrove forest, Paralititan breaks significant new ground for paleontologists. "While now arid, the Bahariya Oasis some 180 miles southwest of Cairo, where we found the dinosaur, was apparently more like the Florida Everglades during the Late Cretaceous Period," Mr. Smith said.
Based upon the telltale types of rock in which the bones were found --largely sandstone and organic-rich mudstone showing clear evidence of weak wave action -- Smith's team deduced that the herbivore was standing on the edge of a tidal channel in very shallow water when it perished 94 million years ago.
"The discovery of a huge sauropod, especially in a near-shore environment, is of great interest," said Hans-Dieter Sues of the University of Toronto and Royal Ontario Museum, who was not involved in this research. "The Egyptian material represents a fauna that is widely found across North Africa, all the way to Morocco in the west, but it documents the dinosaurs much better than the other occurrences, which have usually only yielded isolated bones and teeth."
In addition to evidence of dinosaurs, Mr. Smith's team found a variety of other fossils at the Bahariya Oasis, including fish, turtles and crocodiles. The Paralititan bones represent a partial skeleton, including several vertebrae, dorsal ribs, both scapulae, both humeri, possible dermal armor and additional forelimb elements.
The Bahariya Oasis was the site of extensive paleontological research a century ago: German expeditions led by Ernst Stromer found bones from smaller dinosaurs and other ancient creatures at the site in the early 1900s, and Stromer wrote papers on his discoveries there between 1915 and 1936. But Stromer's trove of dinosaur artifacts from the Bahariya Oasis was lost when the Munich museum where it was housed was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944. The Egyptian site remained largely forgotten by paleontologists until the Penn team began exploring the area in 1999.
"The rediscovery of the original Bahariya Oasis paleontological site has allowed a new glimpse into the age of dinosaurs in northern Africa," said Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Maryland not involved with the Penn team. "Of obvious significance is the discovery of a truly gigantic sauropod dinosaur, closely related to but apparently distinct from the largest currently described dinosaur, Argentinosaurus. But beyond the dinosaurs and other animals, the work is significant in its study of the reconstruction of the environment as a whole. By combining evidence from the plant and animal fossils with a detailed study of the sedimentary rock type and its structures, they have been able to identify modern environments--such as the Gulf Coast of Florida--as a present-day analogue to this ancient community."
The seven-week Penn dig that uncovered Paralititan in January and February 2000 was funded primarily by Cosmos Studios, which seeks to engage the widest possible audience in ground-breaking scientific research. MPH Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based film and television company that has produced more than 125 hours of primetime television programming, also provided seed money for the expedition.
Cosmos Studios has financed an MPH-produced feature-length documentary on the dig in the Bahariya Oasis. The documentary, titled "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt," will be first in an upcoming series of two-hour science-based entertainment specials broadcast on A&E Network. Cosmos Studios also intends to theatrically distribute the film prior to its television premiere.
Josh Smith was joined in the research by Dr. Peter Dodson, professor of geology in Penn's School of Arts and Sciences and professor of anatomy and animal biology in Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine; Dr. Robert F. Giegengack, professor and chair of earth and environmental science at Penn; and Penn graduate students Matthew C. Lamanna and Jennifer R. Smith. Drexel University sedimentologist Dr. Kenneth J. Lacovara, Jason Poole of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Yousry Attia of the Egyptian Geological Museum in Cairo are also co-authors of the Science paper.
In addition to the funding from Cosmos Studios and MPH Entertainment, the team's work was sponsored by Penn's University Research Foundation, Penn's Department of Earth and Environmental Science, the Geological Society of America, the Delaware Valley Paleontological Society and a private donor.
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(Photo Credit: Joshua B. Smith)
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