The Dinosaurs of Argentina

Today, great numbers of visitors come to Argentina to tick off their bucket list of archaeological ‘must sees’, dutifully passing through prehistoric sites at places like the Pinturas River Canyon and Castillos de Pincheira near Mendoza, or photographing the 16th century wonders of European colonialism that pop up en masse right across the country and, indeed, the continent.

But, in the far south of Argentina, in the icy wilds and unchartered hinterland of Patagonia, there remains a plethora of dig sites largely unknown on the tourist trail. They have revealed secrets far, far older than any of the Pre-Incan settlement sites or Spanish missions, and ancient creatures more formidable and fascinating than any that currently roam the earth: Dinosaurs.

In fact, Patagonia has long been hailed by palaeontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts for its wealth of fossilised remains. To date, no less than nine individual species of beast have been uncovered from the glaciers and grounds of this southernmost Argentinian province, most dating from the early to late cretaceous period, which started around 145 million years ago.

It’s thought that the climactic conditions of Argentina itself, during a period of almost 80 million years from the start of the cretaceous period, are one of the main reasons for Patagonia’s proliferation of finds today. What’s more, parallels have been drawn between the desert badlands of North America, where remains dating from the mass extinction at around 65 million years BC (the end of the cretaceous period) are relatively easy to see due to the unique geological makeup of the soil, to indicate that it’s no coincidence bones keep popping out of the ground here.

Of the all the Patagonian finds, perhaps the most astounding and definitive is that of the giant Argentinosaurus. Not only has this one taken the country of its discovery as a namesake, but it’s also managed to dwarf previous conceptions of titanosaurs (really big dinosaurs) that many palaeontologists and scientists had previously thought to be true. (One shockingly terse statistic even noted that an Argentinosaurus adult must have increased in size by a factor of 25,000 to reach full growth!)
In 2007, Patagonia threw up yet another startling find, and one that again challenged the world’s conception of a truly massive dinosaur.

Called the Futalognkosaurus dukei (literally, and tellingly, meaning ‘giant king lizard’), the beast’s remains join the Argentinosaurus and other South American fossils as a contender for the world’s largest. It is estimated that, when fully grown, the Futalognkosaurus could be as long as 45-meters across from head to tail, while its unusually wide hips and central torso remains suggest it could reach nearly 3-metres across at its widest point!

Both the Argentinosaurus and Futalognkosaurus come from the dinosaur sub-class of sauropod, a genus of long-necked herbivores that grew to phenomenal proportions in South America at this time. Indeed, what’s particularly striking for many people is that these giant beasts could survive in the Argentinian wilds, which today seem inhospitable in the extreme (particularly if one looks to the very sites from which their fossils were dug). But, because of the remains of small fish and other plant species found caked into the sediment of Patagonia’s grand glaciers, it’s also thought that the tip of South America enjoyed a much warmer climate during the cretaceous period, along with a geographical isolation from the rest of the world that meant unique species like these could thrive and grow to their epic proportions.

But, while the massive dinosaurs of Argentina are most all herbivores and plant-eating species, that’s not to say that the region was without its predators. In 1993, one Ruben Dario Carolini, working near the small town of Villa El Chocon in the deep centre of southern Argentina, discovered the remains of what is now, appropriately named, the Giganotosaurus. The dinosaur is today hailed as the largest carnivorous beast to have ever walked the planet earth, bigger even than the iconic and ubiquitous Jurassic mainstay, the Tyranosaurus Rex. Even the great molar teeth of the Giganotosaurus is estimated to have been more than one fifth of a metre long, while the body of a fully grown male would have weighed somewhere in the region of nine tonnes!

In many ways Argentina’s Patagonia represents something of a mecca for dinosaur enthusiasts, made possible by a combination of unique climactic conditions and prehistoric quirks of nature. But, even for those simply looking for a break from the usual route of human history sites and post-colonial heritage centres that make up much of the country’s cultural offering, a visit to the remote wilds of the south is sure to unearth some truly astounding treasures!