This year is continuing to be a great one for paleontologists. First the largest ever dino footprints were discovered, then Brazil’s largest dinosaur was found in a cupboard. Now, a new titanosaur has been named in Australia by the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum (AADM).
The discovery of Savannasaurus ellottorum is significant for paleontologists because it will help put together the puzzle of the distribution of the largest land-living animals. Its name comes from the location in which the specimen was discovered; AADM co-founder David Elliott came across it in the Australian savannah in 2005.
“I was nearly home with the mob — only about a kilometre from the yards — when I spotted a small pile of fossil bone fragments on the ground,” said Elliott during an announcement related to the findings. “I was particularly excited at the time as there were two pieces of a relatively small limb bone and I was hoping it might be a meat-eating theropod dinosaur.”
Savannasaurus ellottorum is no theropod. It’s a completely new genus and species, and its bones are approximately 95 million years old. It took ten years for volunteers and staff of the museum to remove the stone from around the bones to reveal the skeleton — one of the most complete sauropod dinosaur skeletons ever found in Australia.
The new paper announcing the species — released this week in the journal Scientific Reports — also mentions another dinosaur skull which was found which belonged to a dinosaur called Diamantinasaurus matildae.
Sauropod expert Dr Philip Mannion from Imperial College London was one of the collaborators on the study, and helped work out the position of these dinosaurs on the sauropod family tree.
“Both Savannasaurus and Diamantinasaurus belong to a group of sauropods called titanosaurs. This group of sauropods includes the largest land-living animals of all time,” he said. “Savannasaurus and the new Diamantinasaurus specimen have helped us to demonstrate that titanosaurs were living worldwide by 100 million years ago.”
Not many big dinosaur discoveries have been made in Australia, compared to the US and Europe.
The continent has been subject to around 30 million years of erosion and weathering, which means that paleontologists have limited suitable areas to look for fossils.
According to a Reddit discussion with paleontologist Matt Borths from Stony Brook University, fossils are usually buried deep under miles and miles of rock, which preserves the bones, but often makes it difficult for scientists to unearth them.
Fossils come to the surface when geological events, such as new mountain formation, occur. According to Borths, this hasn’t happened in Australia or parts of Africa for a very long time.
“There are probably lots of dinosaurs in the rocks under Australians’ feet but they can’t get at them because no mountain-building event has lifted them up to expose them at the surface,” he said. “We [have found some] African and Australian dinosaurs. They are just few and far between.”
Many of the dinosaur discoveries in Australia have been from the early to middle Cretaceous period around 95 to 125 million years ago. Younger fossils are likely to have been eroded away into dust, whereas older ones are still lying miles below the surface.
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