It will be one of the largest exhibitions ever in a British museum. In the spring, London’s Natural History Museum is displaying the skeleton of a titanosaurus, a creature so large it must be dragged into the 30-foot-tall Waterhouse Gallery with a shoehorn.
One of the most massive creatures to ever walk the Earth, Patagotitan mayoralty was a 57-ton behemoth that would have shaken the ground as it stomped across the homelands that now make up modern Patagonia. The skeleton is 37 meters long and 5 meters high – considerably larger than the museum’s most famous dinosaur, Dippy the diplodocus, which used to tower above the main gallery.
“The sheer size of this creature is extraordinary,” says Professor Paul Barrett, an expert on museum dinosaurs. “Even if you see it next to one of today’s giant animals, like an elephant, it just makes them smaller. It’s humble.”
The remains of Patagotitan mayoralty were discovered in 2010 when a rancher in Patagonia came across a giant femur sticking out of the ground. Argentine fossil experts later unearthed more than 200 pieces of skeleton, the remains of at least six individual animals.
Casts of these bones were made by the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, Patagonia, and these form the skeleton that will be on display in London in March.
“The number of exposed bones represents a wealth of material,” said Sinead Marron, the exhibit’s chief curator. “It means we now know a lot more about this species than we do about many other dinosaurs.”
Patagotitan mayoralty lived about 100 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous period, toward the end of the dinosaurs’ reign on Earth. It was one of the three or four largest species of titanosaur known to science today. These creatures were built like suspension bridges with a huge backbone, a huge neck for collecting food from trees and a tail for balance.
“They were herbivores that gobbled up plants and leaves and fermented them in their huge stomachs, producing huge amounts of methane as a by-product — so you wouldn’t want to get hung up on the back of one of these animals,” Barrett said. “Some people even argue that herbivorous dinosaurs like these spewed out so much methane that they contributed to the warming of the greenhouse that then gripped the planet.”
Despite weighing more than nine elephants, these colossal creatures were smaller than a human baby to begin with, Marron added. “As part of the exhibit, we are displaying a fossilized dinosaur egg about 6 inches in diameter, smaller than a football,” she added. “From there, the animal grew to a length of 37 meters.”
There are still several mysteries Patagotitan mayoralty, however. “You find large dinosaur remains in a lot of places, but in Patagonia you find some that are absolutely massive, like titanosaurs,” Barrett said. “So was there something special about the region’s ecology at this time or have we just been unlucky so far that we haven’t found any titanosaur remains anywhere else?”
It is also not clear why the six animals died so close together. “They were all almost fully grown and died in the same place,” Marron said. “But why? What could have done that? It’s not clear, although the mystery adds an extra dimension to the story of these wonderful animals.”
Titanosaur: Life as the greatest dinosaur opens March 31 next year until January 7 2024.