The recent resurfacing of the bones discovered in Argentina's Neuquén Province has paleontologists all over the world discussing new possibilities. The bones are believed to have belonged to a titanosaur, a dinosaur species belonging to a group of enormous sauropods. Experts believe this find could be the largest dinosaur to ever have lived. Here we discuss this topic and more with Oklahoma State University’s own paleontologist, Anne Weil.
Weil is a vertebrate paleontologist, meaning she studies animals with a backbone; this includes dinosaurs. She specializes in the Jurassic period, which is supposed to be about 150 million years ago.
“I started on this path to paleontology since I was 22,” Weil said, “I’ve gotten into Sauropod dinosaurs, but I started with Mesozoic mammals. Vertebrate paleontologists study comparative anatomy, relating the bones back to the animal.”
Publishing 32 research reports since 1992, Weil has been focusing on Sauropods for some time now. With her latest endeavor working at an older site dating back to the Jurassic era, there’s more to discover than dinosaurs.
“It’s not just a vertebrate site, but an invertebrate site too” Weil said, “there’s a lot for people to work on, it gives us a good snapshot of a whole ecosystem,” Weil said. “With a site like this you’re presented with a lot of different animals” Weil said“and your first question is ‘what am I looking at’”?
Research coming from this site can lead to the revelation of much more information such as describing new species and learning the anatomy of extinct animals. Weil has said the site includes a healthy range of creatures from shrimp and fish to the giant Sauropod dinosaurs.
“The site is about 152 million years old,” Weil said, “and we get that from the rocks more than the bones. We can also tell if something is feeding on animals, we have scratches on the bones from teeth”
Oklahoma is known for having a large number of Sauropod findings. In fact, the Sam Nobel museum has a display of the largest Apatosaurus, along with its baby.
Sauropods start off small, around the size of a pony, while the adults are around 35 m (115 ft.) and 80 metric tons (176,370 pounds).
“In Oklahoma, we have an animal called Sauroposeidon, which is more closely related to the animal found in Argentina,” Weil said, “it’s known for neck vertebrae and it’s pretty big too, all Sauropods are huge.”
For most fossil finds, you won’t get the whole animal, you’ll have parts of it and need to run a lot of tests to determine its size and habits. Scientists base their estimates on their features, like shoulder blades and neck vertebrae, along with comparing them to multiple other samples of the same species.
“You’re always going to have a range of answers,” Weil said, “the more of a skeleton you have the more information you can give.”
On her team, she works with many different geologists, paleontologists, and various students. The levels can vary going from fieldwork to working on an X-ray powder diffraction (XRD).
“I’ve had people who saw an hour-long special on tv, and say “I could do what you do,” Weil said, “Paleontology isn’t what you see on tv, you don’t just blow off dust and get your fossil. It’s filthy and sweaty in the field, and some high school students lose interest after the first day”
Weil explains the vast amount of information that is still yet to be discovered, and how common displays of what dinosaurs may have looked like could give you the wrong idea.
“There’s more time between a stegosaurus and a tyrannosaur than a tyrannosaurus and people,” Weil said, “Evolution of flowering plants is something that happened between the stegosaurus and the tyrannosaurus, what was available to eat changed. What you think of a plant didn’t exist in the Jurassic period, there were different types of Ferns and Pine trees, the whole ecosystem changes over time, the Sauropods were extremely successful in adapting compared to other dinosaurs.”
Weil bring to light that many dinosaur-like features reside in out current wildlife climate. Even the chicken bears resemblance to an extinct creature that we would refer to as a dinosaur. However, the supposed comet that struck the earth is guessed to have disrupted that chain of evolution.
“It was a bad time for that to happen,” Weil said,” over in India at the time there were many volcanic eruptions, affecting the climate. We lost a lot of ocean life like plankton along with the T-rex.”
There are plenty more discoveries to be made as there are many ways a fossil can be formed such as ocean sediment, mud and rocks. With so much more to discover, the need for paleontologists remains constant.
With Weil’s ten years in graduate school, she has some advice for hopeful Paleontologists.
“Becoming a Paleontologist is not easy,” Weil says, “but the Discovery makes it all worth it.”