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Discoveries don’t happen overnight
Researchers have been operating on the Angeac-Charente dig site for 10 years. Each year, doctors and doctoral students flock to the site in France to attempt to uncover the secrets of the past. In fact, it was a student who made the shocking discovery in July.
Tourists are also welcome to the excavation site, so you too can experience hands-on learning while being guided by some of the most celebrated and knowledgeable scientists in the field. Scientists at the dig site have uncovered hundreds of shocking finds throughout the decade it has been open. What is it about this site in particular that makes it so fascinating to researchers?
History of the region
The site is amid the bustling metropolitan city of Bordeaux, France — the sixth-largest city in the country. The winegrowing town is now a prominent economic powerhouse, vital to the world’s wine industry. The city was host to many ancient civilizations, drawn to the area by its temperate climate.
For nearly as long as civilization can be traced back, there is evidence of humans living in Bordeaux — and of the wine trade. Apparently, some things never change. Actually, we take that back — the Earth is very old and has gone through many changes, as this recent discovery proves.
Before the Roman Empire
The Bituriges were one of the tribes of Celtic Gaul. They ruled the region for centuries before the Romans. The tribes split into many different tribes, each presiding over separate regions. The Bituriges Vivisci ruled Burdigala, which would later become Bordeaux, France.
The tribe traded extensively with the Greco-Roman-ruled Mediterranean and Garonne for wine, though at the time it was all imported. Therefore, Bordeaux had been an epicenter for the wine trade long before the celebrated city would even host its first vineyard. But the discovery made on July 26 predated all this considerably — by over 100 million years.
The Angeac-Charente dig site
In the 10 years that the site has been active, many impressive finds have been uncovered. The area was a major ecological hub for dinosaurs — over 7,000 bones of creatures that inhabited the Earth hundreds of millions of years before humans have been excavated.
The humid, subtropical climate, large coniferous trees, and flowing river made the location ideal for dinosaurs, invertebrates, and plants during the Jurassic Period. Of course, southwestern France looks drastically different now than it did back then. Even the climate has changed dramatically: There have been four ice ages since the Jurassic Period, not to mention the giant comet that wiped out nearly all terrestrial life.
The climate during the Jurassic Period
Unsurprisingly, scientists are somewhat divided as to the climate of the Earth hundreds of millions of years before humans were there to record it. The prevailing theory contends that the Earth changed from being hot and arid during the Triassic Period into a rainy, subtropical environment during the Jurassic.
The separating tectonic plates allowed shallow seas to emerge on the Earth’s surface where before there had been just one large mass of water. It is unknown exactly why, but dinosaurs of this period grew excessively large, which coincides with the recent discovery made at Angeac-Charente. How do scientists explain these dinosaurs’ massive size?
How and why did dinosaurs get so big during this period?
For many years, scientists believed the changing climate and atmosphere caused dinosaurs to grow so large during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. However, more recent studies seem to show no correlation between the oxygen levels in the atmosphere, the Earth’s temperature, and the size of dinosaurs.
We do know that dinosaurs had lighter bones than mammals would come to have — this likely allowed their bodies to sustain their gigantic size. Many of the most famous and recognizable dinosaurs are from this period in time. The Jurassic Period lasted 64 million years and marked the second segment of the Mesozoic Era. But how can scientists tell how long ago certain dinosaurs lived?
How do paleontologists determine the age of their finds?
Simply put — the older the find, the deeper they have to dig. Obviously, there is a little more to it than that. Paleontologists use what is called the geologic time scale to tell time. Here is how it works:
Sedimentary rocks made from mud, sand, gravel, and fossils pile up over time. Therefore, the older rocks are buried beneath younger ones. Bones and fossils found deeper — among older rocks, are determined to be from older dinosaurs, and vice versa. Using this dating method, scientists have been able to map out a chronology of Earth, billions of years before humans evolved.
The event that killed the dinosaurs can be observed in the geologic time scale
Scientists have debated extensively about almost every aspect surrounding the event that wiped out the dinosaurs. However, one thing remains certain: All around the world, a geological layer in the sediment containing impact-related material marks a line above which no dinosaur bones or fossils have ever been observed. It is known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) boundary.
Recent discoveries show evidence that this mass extinction event took place off the coast of Mexico. The giant crater, named Chicxulub, was made by a comet roughly the size of Staten Island. It impacted the Earth at an incredible velocity, setting in motion tidal waves, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions that would signal the end of dinosaurs and pave the way for the age of mammals.
Maxime Lasseron made the discovery
Maxime Lasseron is a doctoral student working on obtaining his Ph.D. while studying at the Paris National Museum of Natural History. He must have been excited to begin working at such a storied paleontological dig site, but he couldn’t have known the discovery he would make.
Discoveries like this don’t happen every day — in fact, they seldom happen within a lifetime. Lasserson and other researchers were overjoyed when they first uncovered part of the bone, but became increasingly more excited when further digging began to reveal its size and its quality of preservation. “We kept saying, ‘Oh, there’s more!’” Lasserson told AFP.
Dinosaurs of Mesozoic Europe
What creatures roamed this radically different Earth, particularly in what would later become Europe? For one, there was the Archaeopteryx, a creature that resembles a gigantic bird. However, this feathered creature had more in common with fellow dinosaurs than birds.
Despite this, the Archaeopteryx is still often referred to erroneously as the “first true bird.” In fact, the Archaeopteryx is actually not believed to be a direct ancestor to the birds of today. Birds can likely trace their ancestry back to the theropods of the later Cretaceous Period, though not as far back as the Jurassic Period. There have been close to a dozen near-full skeletons of the Archaeopteryx discovered. While Archaeopteryx bones are an impressive find to be sure, what Angeac paleontologists discovered recently was much, much larger …
Other dinosaurs of Mesozoic Europe
One other well-known dinosaur from the Jurassic Period is the Megalosaurus, the long-legged and long-toothed carnivore that walked on its hind legs and was about 20 feet long. Despite having “mega” at the beginning of its name, the Megalosaurus was relatively small when compared with other carnivorous dinosaurs.
The Tyrannosaurus rex, for example, dwarfed the Megalosaurus at double its size. The Spinosaurus — the largest carnivorous dinosaur — could grow up to 59 feet long. The Spinosaurus would evolve much later, during the Cretaceous Period. No, the bone discovered in July belonged to an even larger dinosaur than the Spinosaurus.
Scientists may have found other bones from the same creature
On July 25, 2014, scientists discovered a giant toe at the Angeac-Charente paleontological site. The big toe was 34 centimeters long and still had most of its claw attached. What kind of massive creature was this that populated France in the Mesozoic Era, and could this giant toe and this most recent discovery have come from the same beast?
Paleontologists aren’t sure yet, but this recent discovery is the largest of its kind to date, and considered a major find. How serendipitous would it be if paleontologists uncovered another bone from the same creature almost exactly five years after they found its toe?
So what was the recent discovery?
Paleontologists at the Angeac-Charente palaeontological site uncovered the femur of a gigantic sauropod — the largest creature believed to ever walk on land. The creatures date back to the Triassic Period, though this one is younger, walking the earth during the Jurassic Period alongside the Stegosaurus and Allosaurus.
The giant thigh bone weighs approximately 880 pounds and is over 6 feet long. Above, Maxime Lasseron sits next to the remarkable discovery, which provides a scale to judge the immense size of the creature. The largest sauropods stood around 59 feet high and 98 feet long. Probably the most recognizable of the sauropod genera are the Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus, which you may recognize from the films Jurassic Park and The Land Before Time.
The bone is remarkably well preserved
In 2010, paleontologists uncovered another sauropod thigh bone, though it was not nearly as well preserved as the one found recently. Usually, bones that even approach the size of the recent discovery at Angeac-Charente are split into several pieces — in such bad shape that it is difficult to match them to the type of dinosaur that possessed them.
For comparison, look at the thigh bone discovered at the same site in 2010 (shown here), compared to the one discovered in 2019. Notice how the newly discovered bone is kept together in one complete piece. “We can see the insertions of muscles and tendons, and scars. This is rare for big pieces which tend to collapse in on themselves and fragment,” Ronan Allain of Paris’ National Museum of Natural History said to Le Parisien newspaper.
So … what is a sauropod?
Sauropods were incredibly giant saurischian (or lizard-hipped dinosaurs) that lived all over the globe. The sauropods of the Jurassic Period displayed little variety in their body structure. They all walked on four wide legs. This is perhaps to make room for their immense stomach, which had to work extra hard to digest their tough herbivorous diet.
Though their legs may appear similar to an elephant’s legs at first glance, their feet are remarkably different. The manus bones of an elephant splay outward to create a wide imprint, while these bones in most sauropods were stacked on top of each other vertically. Most sauropods’ digits shrunk through evolution to the point that they would be invisible on the exterior. However, almost all retained their “thumb-claw.”
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of a sauropod is its remarkably long neck. They were able to support this massive appendage because of their lightweight bones and vertebrae. Unlike the bones of practically every nonaviary creature alive today, sauropods had hollow bones. The pneumatic bones made their immense necks light enough for them to carry.
But what was the advantage of having such a long neck? It would stand to reason that the long neck would help the beasts graze on the leaves of towering trees, like giraffes. However, many scientists have theorized just the opposite. These paleontologists applied a mathematical equation that concluded that the sauropod was able to save considerable energy grazing near the ground. Basically, the longer their neck, the less they’d have to move their giant, heavy body.
Variations within the clade
Unlike the towering monsters depicted in Jurassic Park or possibly Godzilla: King of the Monsters, these dinos were more on the petite side. There are many distinct traits that separate different genera from one another. Most notably, their size. The smallest sauropods were the Ohmdenosaurus and the dwarf titanosaur Magyarosaurus, which stood only 4 meters and 6 meters high, respectively.
Despite their (relatively) shrimpy stature, even these sauropods were the largest members of the ecosystem they called home. The Magyarosaurus continued to thrive for millions of years — until the end of the Cretaceous Period, when a giant meteorite wiped them out, along with practically all terrestrial life.
There are plans to expand the site
This incredible discovery is just the latest to come from the Angeac-Charente paleontological site, which has proved to be a veritable hot spot for finding dinosaur bones and fossils. “Another surprise for our 10-year anniversary,” Jean-Francois Tournepiche, the site’s lead operator, said. “At this rate, we’ll be busy for the next 30 years!”
Indeed, they’ll have a lot more ground to cover. Recently, plans have been approved to expand the dig site by over five times its current size. Currently, the site is 8,100 square feet — the expansion will stretch an additional 43,055 square feet. Who knows, maybe they’ll be able to piece together a complete gigantic sauropod skeleton!
Other impressive finds from around the world — the Los Angeles subway
In 2016, an incredible find occurred in an unlikely place. Workers expanding the LA subway system came upon a startling discovery. Fortunately, California law requires a paleontologist to be on-site whenever underground construction takes place — otherwise, this jaw-dropping discovery may have remained hidden.
While digging beneath the earth, workers uncovered a nearly intact fossilized mammoth skull. Paleontologists believe the skull belonged to a young Columbian Mammoth. When fully grown, these massive beasts were considerably larger than both woolly mammoths and modern African elephants. Paleontologists will likely never know how “Hayden” the mammoth died — only the skull was ever recovered.
German paleontologists found an Archaeopteryx fossil that is probably the oldest ever discovered
Archaeopteryx, the birdlike dinosaur we mentioned earlier, walked the Earth for an incredibly long period of time. Scientists have discovered their fossils in three distinct rock units — spanning about 1 million years during the Jurassic Period. For comparison, anatomically modern humans can only be traced back about 200,000 years.
So far, there have been 12 of the birdlike beasts discovered from around the world. Scientists believe variation between these winged dinosaurs is enough to suggest there were multiple different species of the same creature — much like Darwin’s observations about variations between finches from the Galápagos Islands, which led to the formation of evolutionary theory. “The high degree of variation in the teeth is particularly striking,” scientist Oliver Rauhut concurred, “which could reflect differences in diet.”
The discovery of the Deinonychus changed our understanding of dinosaurs
You know the velociraptors in Jurassic Park? How quickly the predators moved and how intelligently they acted? Well, our image of those terrifying prehistoric beasts owes nearly everything to a discovery made in the mid 1960s by John Ostrom, a professor of paleontology from Yale University.
The fossil he discovered of a Deinonychus shattered the common belief that dinosaurs were clumsy, dimwitted creatures — not exactly the stuff of nightmares. This creature was highly intelligent and could race quickly across the landscape. It also gave rise to the theory that dinosaurs were more akin to birds than we previously understood.
Andrew Carnegie financed the dig and discovery of dinosaur skeletons
The wealthy American industrialist was astonished by discoveries of dinosaur bones in the Midwest during the late 19th century. He was so impressed that he decided he needed some dinosaur skeletons to display in his new Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He sent men out on an expedition to find dinosaurs.
His efforts proved remarkably fruitful. In fact, the most complete Diplodocus skeleton humans have ever discovered came from this search. Carnegie had many different plaster casts made of the skeleton to distribute to museums around the world. You can still see the original Diplodocus carnegii at the Carnegie Natural Museum of History in Pittsburgh today! While considerably smaller than the creature to which the recently discovered femur belonged, the Diplodocus is part of the Sauropoda clade.
The 1996 discovery of the Sinosauropteryx further changed our view of dinosaurs
The Sinosauropteryx prima, or “First Chinese Reptile Wing,” was first discovered during a dig in Liaoning, China. The name given to the fossilized creature aptly describes the dino-bird. The imprint of the creature included a wispy, furlike outline. This lent credence to the theory postulated by other paleontologists that dinosaurs were similar to birds in many ways.
First off, the Sinosauropteryx appeared to be feathered — scientists now understood that certain dinosaurs had evolved to feature featherlike insulation to protect them from the cold and be capable of flight. It should be mentioned that we now know that many, though not all, dinosaurs had feathers. With these remarkable discoveries, our image of the past becomes increasingly clearer.
The geography of the world during the Mesozoic Era
Obviously, the Earth was very different back when dinosaurs walked (and swam) it. But it wasn’t just because of the lack of humans. The geography back then was radically different than it is today: The seven continents used to be just one.
During the early Mesozoic Era, Pangea was the one continent on earth. By the middle of the Jurassic Period, the giant continent had split into two — Gondwana and Laurasia. At the end of the period, the globe would begin to faintly resemble the way it looks today, with Africa, South America, North America, and Australia separating and drifting apart.