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Sea Monsters of Patagonia.

It does not look like beach-front property, but that is what it was--140 million years ago. Bordering a bay on the far western edge of the Pacific Ocean, it once swarmed with prehistoric sea life. At the time, this land was part of Gondwana, a mega continent that united what we now know as South America, Antarctica, Africa, Australia, and India.

Today the view is far from oceanic. The vista is dry, rocky, semidesert, agrarian, isolated, and uninhabited. Located in the far northwestern corner of Neuquen Province in the Argentine Patagonia, fifty miles from the nearest village of Chos Malal, the area surrounding what is called the Pampa Tril site is better known today for goats, sheep, and cattle and their Mapuche herdsmen than for marine life or fantastic sea monsters. However, that's about to change. Since the late 1980s, paleontologists have been chiseling away at the erstwhile basin's rocky outeroppings. In the future, this dusty site may become famous for Dakosaurus andiniensis--Godzilla for short--a huge marine crocodile that swam in the basin looking for huge Jurassic prey to attack with its meat cleaver of a jaw.

Beginning in 1972, investigators in the Mesozoic Mature Reptile Project, headquartered at the La Plata Museum, have been excavating and finding numerous marine fossils in Latin America. (Both the museum and the National University of La Plata, of which it is a part, have played an important role in the education of many of the region's paleontologists and technicians.) At Pampa Tril alone, researchers found fragments, some largely intact, of marine tortoises, ichthyoand pliosaurs, saurs. Then ten years ago, brothers Sergio and Rafael Cocca came across a distinctive nodule, or chunk of rock, and moved it to the Olsacher Museum, in Zapala, where they both are technicians, seventy-five miles away. They knew that they had found something special; they did not know how rare.

A call to Dr. Zuhna Gasparini, head of the Mesozoic Marine Reptile Project, and of the National Geographic expedition at Pampa Tril that sprained file nineties, brought her to see the specimen firsthand. "What surprised me was the presence of huge teeth with serrated edges," remembers Gasparini. Modemday crocodiles have numerous smaller teeth that are suited to eating plants and mollusks. The Cocca brothers returned to the site and found several large vertebrae in the same area. Based on these discoveries, Gasparini decided to send everything to the La Plata Museum's Department of Paleontological Vertebrates. She felt certain the rock held something special.

Technicians working with chisels and hand-held pneumatic tools toiled slowly and carefully to remove the rock. After three years, their efforts revealed a giant crocodile-like head with a skull about three feet long. "When I saw it, I was convinced we had found a rare marine crocodile," says Gasparini. "I gave it the nickname of Godzilla because it reminded me of a dinosaur, only one that came from the sea," she explains.

The nickname hints at the "weirdness of this creature," says Diego Pol, a researcher at the Egidio Feruglio Paleontological Museum in Trelew, Chubut. It resembles both a modern-day crocodile and a terrestrial carnivorous dinosaur.

Though resemblance to a dinosaur is apparent, "there is no 'real' debate; everybody [so far] has agreed that it is a crocodile," says Pol. Scientists have not previously seen a dinosaur with the features of a crocodile--in this case, with a raised face, short snout, and sharp, serrated, interlocking teeth. Pol has called Godzilla "one of the most evolved members of the crocodilian family and one of the most bizarre." He should know. His job was to determine where Godzilla fits on the evolutionary tree. Pol is the man behind the phylogenetic computer software that contains all the information on crocodilian physical characteristics and behaviors. He traveled around the globe to compare Godzilla with other ancient crocodiles, taking measurements and collecting other data, then returned to the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Ohio State University, where he then worked, to enter the data and tailor the computer software to the purpose. Although gathering and inputting the information took some time, the new croc's family tree was quickly revealed. Pol says it is clear that the croc is a marine reptile unlike any other. Besides its ferocious jaw, it was equipped with flippers in place of forearms and a whipping tail, on a thirteen-foot long body. But the croc's short snout and big teeth "broke the mold with respect to known marine crocodiles," Pol says. "Perhaps this croc represents a convergence of marine reptiles and terrestrial dinosaurs."

This does not mark the first discovery of fossils of this species. In 1996, the same year as the Cocca brothers' discovery, French paleontologist Patrick Vignaud and Gasparini identified fossil fragments of a crocodile snout found in Mendoza as Dakosaurus andiniensis. But these scant fossil fragments did not have much impact on the world of paleontology. In contrast, Godzilla yielded a complete skull and, according to Pol, showed the world that it is totally different from other marine crocodiles, representing a notable development in their evolution.

"It is significant that there were predators that ate more than small fish and mollusks," notes Gasparini. Pol says that scientists don't yet know the underlying causes for this major evolutionary change, but it is clear that Godzilla was an animal that could attack large prey, perhaps by "slashing them."

Godzilla is one of five notable discoveries in Argentina announced last year alone. After years of review, Pol and Argentine paleontologist Fernando Novas reported in Nature that fragments of vertebrae and ribs, parts of legs, and a signature claw on foot provided the first definitive evidence of dromaeosaurids, or raptors, in South America similar to the velociraptor (of the film Jurassic Park fame). Later in the year, researchers Peter J. Makovicky, of Chicago's Field Museum, and Sebastian Apesteguia, of Argentina's Natural History Foundation, announced the discovery of an intact raptor skeleton in a Rio Negro site known as La Buitrera, "the Vulture's Nest," about eight hundred miles southwest of Buenos Aires. "That's what was most striking," Pol says. "Up to now, all known raptor species were exclusive to the Northern Hemisphere. And they all date to a time way after the splitting of the two landmasses." The intact skeleton has a head quite different from raptors found in the Northern Hemisphere, suggesting that this branch of the family took a different evolutionary course from those known in the north.

Late last April, Apesteguia and Hussam Zaher, of the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, reported the discovery of Najash rionegrina. This terrestrial two-legged snake is the "most primitive known snake," says Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, adding that this opens a new chapter in the long-standing debate about whether snakes evolved on land or sea. Apesteguia agrees, noting that this discovery provides a completely different point of view "from those gained from investigation of older but more sophisticated snakes found in the Middle East and Africa." The same week as the announcement of the Najash, another pair of researchers announced the identification of a new giant carnivorous dinosaur, Mapusaurus roseae, in Neuquen (see page 53).

Godzilla, along with the raptors, leggy snake, and Mapusaurus, as well as the attendant publicity, may have put Argentina on the map for reptile and dinosaurs in the popular consciousness. But experts have long recognized that the country is a paleontological paradise--one of the three most important areas for paleontology, along with North America and China--because of the Andes Mountains, the movement of the earth's crust, and the dry climate.

In Argentine Patagonia during the era of the dinosaurs, prehistoric reptiles, and mammalians, sediment piled up against the base of the Andes mountains capturing all kinds of early creatures. The shallow ocean covering northwest Patagonia before the Andes formed trapped marine reptiles like Godzilla. Geologic activity in some instances revealed the fossil record. The subductal movement of the earth's crust--meaning that the ocean floor pressed against softer dry land--pushed some layers containing fossils to the surface. In other cases, this same action made fossils more difficult to reach. Erosion In the area caused by wind and water further brought the fossils to light.

Today's arid climate preserves the fossils and minimizes vegetation. Prehistoric creatures also made the area that is now Brazil their home, but it is harder to find fossils there. The lush Amazonian vegetation covers the sedimentary rocks containing fossils. Often fossils are revealed by road construction cutting through dense jungle growth.

As in the case of Najash, Apesteguia notes that the La Buitrera site provides a "snapshot" of smaller animals such as snakes that lived in the "shadow of larger dinosaurs in the Cretaceous era." The "fine sand of the river that ran through the area probably trapped and killed small animals in a flash flood while dinosaurs survived," he says. Because of this, their smaller, more fragile skeletons survived the ages.

Argentina's isolation as part of Gondwana In the era of dinosaurs also makes for the distinctive nature of the animal life found there. Paleontologically speaking, Argentina is like "Venus in comparison" to North America (specifically Utah and the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico) and China, says Jim Clark, chief paleontologist of the state of Utah. Thus the prehistoric creatures developed separately from other parts of the globe and were often quite different from creatures found elsewhere. For the first one hundred years of paleontology, researchers based their conclusions on finds in the Northern Hemisphere. However, that's about to change. Says Professor Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., of the University of Maryland's Department of Geology, "The last twenty years of work in Argentina gives a new dimension to our understanding of the Age of Dinosaurs."

Museums of Argentine Patagonia Fuel Fossil Finds

It lakes more than a fantastic fossil record to make Argentine Patagonia a di-namic paleontological paradise. It takes human and financial capital. The region's museums and their researchers provide the requisite spirit, know-how, and determination. From the Olsacher in Zapala, to the Egidio Ferugllo's modern museum in Trelew and its cliff-side marine fossil site in Gaiman, Chubut Province, paleontological museums crisscross the map. The leaders of these museums have been able to "rub two dimes together," says Jim Kirkland, chief paleontologist for the state of Utah, to fired new work and find creative ways to support initiatives in both the field and laboratory. Researchers aligned with universities such as the National University of Comahue with campuses in Rio Negro and Neuquen look to links with municipal governmental museums as well as private enterprise, even seeking support from novel businesses, including those that forge dinosaur casts for exhibits, for example, as well as those that promote tourism. The national governmental scientific agency, CONICET (Consejo de Investigaciones Cientificas y Tecnicas), pays the salaries of many professional paleontologists in Argentina and sometimes pays project expenses. The museums provide the institutional framework, laboratory, vehicles, field gear, and often technicians, critical components in developing their research. They also bring paleontology alive not only through vibrant exhibitions (that also educate a new generation of paleontologists) but also through opportunities to see paleontologists at work.

Kirkland notes that for many years "there was effectively only one job" for paleontologists in Argentina. As museums expanded, so did paying jobs for researchers. For fifteen years, the Carmen Funes Museum, located in Plaza Huincul, Neuquen Province, supported one researcher, its director, Rodolfo Coria; now there are six permanent researchers and plans for more. Across the region, museums and research centers provide employment to dozens of researchers, bringing the scientist closer to the expedition.

The museums train new scientists, support field investigations, and sponsor laboratories. The La Plata Museum provided the technical expertise needed to clean the Godzilla fossil. The Lago Barreales Paleontological Center, with its links to the National University of Comahue, educates new paleontologists and its laboratories support scientific research of finds made at the sites adjacent to its facility. It also supports a training program in the removal and cleaning of the fossils of large vertebrates, as well as academic and popular courses in geology and paleontology. The university also has five permanent staff researchers in Neuquen and with Proyecto Dino.

The region's museums also do what museums are traditionally known for doing, housing collections and making them available to the public. The fantastic fossil record gives rise to extraordinary exhibits. Some of the museums of Neuquen may have a grandmother's attic quality to them or are a bit more rugged than typical of a metropolitan city museum. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort to took past the occasional broken window and limited exhibit spaces.

The small Municipal Paleontological Museum in Villa El Chocon exhibits the fossilized skeleton of one of the world's largest carnivorous dinosaurs, Giganotosaurus. The Carmen Danes Museum is home to a fossilized skeleton of Argentinosaurus, the largest herbivore, and largest known dinosaur, discovered by a farmer in 1987, as well as reconstructions of both Giganotosaurus and Argentinosaurus. The museum is most recently noteworthy for leading the excavation of seven Mapusaurus, and today displays both the fossils and a single reconstruction of this large carnivore.

But the Carmen Punes also harbors some of the "tiniest giants." In 1997, museum director Coria and his team, in collaboration with Dr. Luis Chiappe, of the Los Angeles County Museum, found hundreds of sauropod embryos and eggs. The find represents a number of firsts. The eggs contained the first dinosaur embryos to show fossilized skin. The embryos are the first known of these giant plant-eating dinosaurs, and the first dinosaur embryos found in the Southern Hemisphere; with i thousands of eggs, the find is the largest dinosaur nesting site ever discovered.

Coria also hopes to add new fines of research in invertebrates and paleo palynology, the study of the microfossils of plant pollen and spores.

Zapala's Olsacher Museum features prehistoric marine reptiles, invertebrates from the Neuquen basin, and even a paleobotany collection, including Jurassic pineapples.

Located in tiny Rincon de los Sauces, the Municipal Museum "Argentino Urquiza" includes the most complete fossil of a titanosaur, a ten-ton plant-eating, armorclad lizard.

At one site in Lago Barreales investigators made so many finds in a quarry, they brought their center, lock, stock, and barrel, to the site. The Paleontological Center there also brings paleo-tourists to Neuquen. "Today this is the only center of paleontological research with educational and cultural aims in the middle of the desert in Argentina," says Dr. Jorge Calvo, the center's director. Guests may view the work at the site, learn about preservation and investigation techniques, and even sign up for a short work trip in the field. The center has received initial funding from Duke Energy and Chevron. Calvo hopes to find other sources of funding for new research as well as to generate tourist income. Of the latter effort he says, "My objective is that this will be the kickoff of paleo tourism in an educational and scientific way and [that we] will be a light on the horizon for further tourism development and jobs in the province."

The Earth's Dinosaur

A hundred million years ago the carnivorous Mapusaurus roamed outside present-day Plaza Huincul. Named after the indigenous Mapuche word for earth, Mapusaurus was at least forty feet long and had a head twice the size of Tyrannosaurus rex. After the fossil of an adult was found in the rocky outcroppings, paleontologists Rodolfo Coria, CONICET researcher and director at the nearby Carmen Funes Museum, and Professor Philip J. Currie, of the University of Alberta, began to investigate. After five seasons of digging, they excavated more than 110 tons of dirt and rock to find a group of seven adults and young. The band met their fate in an apparent flash flood. It is thought they might have been hunting a much larger dinosaur also living in the vicinity--Argentinosaurus, the largest planting eating dinosaur.

The most striking thing about this find, according to Coria, is the possibility that Mapusaurus lived in packs. University of Maryland Professor Thomas J. Holtz, Jr., tells why living in packs is a dramatic development in the story of the Age of Dinosaurs.

Holtz says that Mapusaurus "weighing in at six tons or about the size of a bull Africa elephant" would have never taken on by itself Argentinosaurus at one hundred tons or about the size of a herd of African elephants. However, working together, a gang of Mapusaurus could "have made a lot of dinners" out of Argentinosaurus. Scientist can infer from the presence of a group of Mapusaurus in the same place at the same time that they worked together to meet their basic survival needs.

According to Coria and Currie's technical paper appearing in Geodiversitas (Vol. 28, no. 1, 2006), Mapusaurus had thin sharp teeth like knives. Such teeth suggest that Mapusaurus attacked its prey by slashing flesh rather than crushing bones.

A freelance writer based in La Paz Bolivia, Kelley Coyner specializes in South American nature, history, and travel. When she is not fossil hunting with her family, she works with nonprofits on health and conservation issues.
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Title Annotation:discovery of crocodile's fossil called "Godzilla"
Author:Coyner, Kelley
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:30SOU
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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