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The Adventure of the Dinosaur on the Postcard

In a ballroom full of paleontologists, I found myself uttering an introductory line better-suited to a bad movie comedy.

“That’s an enormous bone you’ve got there.”

Since paleontologists don’t dance, you know it must have been a converted ballroom. Indeed, it was the “poster session” room now at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings, the annual convention of the 1,000-some people whose life is devoted to dead things with backbones. The “posters” were rows of cork boards lined up wall to wall, each festooned with charts, graphs and photos, and manned by a grad student eager to interest a tenured professor in taking them on to work in some capacity. (Jobs are even harder to come by than dancers in paleontology).

I was pointing to a photo of a mudstone quarry in western Patagonia and within it, an enormous fossil femur. I directed my comment to a mustachioed young researcher who stood beside a bulletin board of photos detailing his latest excavations in Patagonia. He looked like a cross between young Omar Sharif and well, me (though each of us considers the other far less handsome). The label on his lapel said “Rodolfo Coria, Argentina.”

“Yes, this I know,” Coria said quietly, certain of the find if not at that time his English, nor why a stranger was directing so insipid a comment to him.

“That could be…,” I went on, in astonishment.

“Yes,” Coria said matter-of-factly, completing my thought: “It is bigger than T. rex.”

The fossil had the diagnostic curves of a meat-eater’s thigh bone and it looked a good six feet long. The legs of carnivorous dinosaurs simply didn’t come that large. Until now.

It was only a matter of moments before just about every paleontologist in North America knew it too.

Poster presentations, and there are hundreds, are painfully dry on the whole: as-yet unpublished syntheses of many years of research and analysis of a gamut of minutiae on matters as specific as turtle rib structure or variations in duckbill dinosaur crests.

I was just looking for stories – a scientist’s version of “what I found on my summer vacation.” In this photo of an Argentine scientist’s ongoing excavation of a giant dinosaur discovered by a garage mechanic on a dune buggy, I had stumbled on a great austral summer discovery.

“Where’s the rest of it?” I asked Rodolfo, continuing my string of lame comments.

“In the ground, maybe. I don’t have the money to dig it out.”

“What’d it cost to do that?,” I asked, mostly in idle curiosity, as I couldn’t begin to imagine how much manpower, and how many big machines would be needed. Whatever it was, it was well beyond my freelance journalist pay.

“Six thousand dollars.” he answered.

“Hey, that’s doable,” I said. I didn’t even have that much money, but I figured I’d find a way to raise it. After all, for the sake of finding the largest killer ever to walk the Earth, somebody’s got to have the bucks.

If a scientist had it to spare, they probably wouldn’t. To scientists, the discovery of a new species is a matter of modest interest, one little square stitched onto their enormous quilt of data. If that species happens to suggest something about patterns of evolution in a quilt of a particular fauna, or a larger blanket of related animals, then it merits more attention. Otherwise it’s just another pretty little square.

As I’ve written before, the singular attributes beloved by dinosaur enthusiasts – the longest, the smallest, the biggest-toothed, etc. – are empheral prizes frowned upon by scientists. Honorifics to us. Fripperies to them. Of all such singularities, only “oldest” carries much weight in science, for what that suggests of origins.

I know this well now, because my new friend Rodolfo Coria and I were about to dig them up. To do so we needed six thousand dollars in help, for starters. I got it quickly from the father of a kindergarten classmate of Steven Spielberg’s son. He had a dinosaur hunt CD that was making big bucks and he kindly thought it’d be fun to sponsor the dig.

The fruits of our excavations soon proved spectacular. Though only one animal was found, it was the rightful owner of the giant leg-bone. Remarkably, we’d come upon more than 80% of the only skeleton of its kind ever found. Coria named it Giganotosaurus, “giant of the South,” a meat-eater arguably bigger than the largest T. rex.

I came down to visit Coria the next year, with friends, my 12 year-old daughter, and Canadian meat-eating dinosaur expert Phil Currie, soon to be come Professor Coria’s now-longtime research collaborator.

We toured excavation sites around the “Twin Cities” of Cutralco and Plaza Huincul, desert towns of barely 15,000 hardy souls each, on the Western edge of the desert. With the collapse of the national oil company and its drilling in the region, not much was happening in Plaza Huincul.

Except at the then-tiny Museo Carmen Funes, the city museum named in honor of the madam who had run a popular adult attraction on the spot more than a century before. It was there that Professor Coria had been deposited in the late 1980’s while a student of the famed and appropriately named dictator of Argentine paleontology, Jose Bonaparte. Bonaparte assigned his then-grad student to study the nearby remains of Argentinosaurus, giant fragments of an enormous planteater first collected as possible driftwood on the roadside by a local rancher.

As it turned out, this unexplored area proved a treasure trove of dinosaur discoveries, huge plant eaters and meat eaters, and all in easy day’s drive from Plaza Huincul. So student Coria stayed on, as Professor Coria, museum director Coria, and now Dr. Coria, member of the national Conicet science research committee.

It was then just Rodolfo Coria, museum paleontology director, who took us all out to tour the nearby dig sites. We stopped at the Argentinosaurus quarry, a very unprepossessing

GiganotosaurusA few years later, not far from ’s death place, Professor Coria came upon an assemblage of bones that with considerable excavation by a team of 10 over two summers, least of all my wife and I, proved to be fossils of another giant predator.

This giant killer dinosaur was “Giggy’s” descendant, Mapusaurus, named by Coria for the Mapuche Indians of Patagonia, nearly exterminated by large carnivores of the 18th century, Europeans.

Mapusaurus was just as long as Giganotosaurus, and a bit more lithe, if that adjective can be applied to an eight-ton animal.

At nearly the same time, Professor Coria’s collaborator, Canadian paleontologist Phil Currie, had discovered a burial site of a mixed-aged group of Albertosaurus, cousins of T. rex.

When Coria and his crew excavated nine Mapusaurs of many ages and sizes. Not clear what killed them, but most likely a flood. These giant carnivores died in groups, likely as they were hunting in packs, not alone. They were prehistoric lions, not tigers.

So, the discovery of Mapusaurus shifted our view of the lives of giant killer dinosaurs. Before Mapusaurus, scientists thought and we imagined, that T. rex and its kind as solitary killers, prehistoric tigers.


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