John Malathronas heads to Patagonia to see the largest dinosaur to ever walk the Earth
I’m grimy from the relentless wind that makes the path’s limestone dust stick to my sweaty limbs. I’m dehydrated from an unforgiving noonday sun and to top it all, there are several wasp’s nests in front of me. And yet, I’ve never been more excited. These nests are a whopping 39 million years old.
I’m walking in the Bryn Gwyn Geopark, five miles outside the town of Gaiman in Patagonia. The short but arduous trek passes by real fossils on three easily discernible geological strata in the hills around me. Some fossils are original and left in situ like my wasps, while others are copies left exactly where they were discovered. Only a dozen visitors a day make the effort to come here, maybe because the park’s displays – insects, marsupials, armadillos or seals – aren’t as exciting as dinosaurs.
Still, if dinos are your thing, you don’t have to travel far to be overawed. The city of Trelew, only 14 miles away, houses arguably the top paleontological museum in the world, the Egidio Feruglio, which also manages the geopark. Its 20,000 fossils all stem from Patagonia.
With a full skeleton of the terrifying Tyrannotitan by the ticket desk, the museum sure doesn’t disappoint. I start from the modern era and each room takes me further back in time. Some animals look familiar, like the Notostylops, a giant rabbit straight out of Donnie Darko, or Hippidion, a horse that became extinct 8,000 years ago and whose likeness wouldn’t reappear in South America until the Spanish conquest. Others, I wouldn’t like to meet on a dark night even fossilised, such as the Arctodictis, a marsupial carnivore as big as a bear.
It’s when I enter the Cretaceous area that things really get exciting.
In the corner stands a tail bone from an Argentinosaurus, a vegetarian dinosaur so big that when they dug up its spine they thought it was a petrified tree. For two decades it’s been crowned the largest land animal that ever lived. But even the mighty Argentinosaurus has been overshadowed by the latest museum find. Pride of place in the room now is the leg of an even larger dinosaur, as yet unnamed, discovered in a farm 155 miles west of Trelew. At 8ft, the femur is taller than me, although thanks to a diet of junk food on the road I more than match it in circumference.
The curator, Pablo Puerta, tells me how they were lucky to find over 400 fossilised bones belonging to seven dinosaurs of the same species, quarried over two years. How they had to plaster and wrap in burlap every single bone, before they moved it from the field, so as not to crack it. How they zircon-dated the animals to 101.6 million years and estimated one individual’s length as 138ft and its weight as 76 tons. And how, finally, the museum will have to expand to show off the two largest dinosaurs that ever walked on Earth.
If there’s a bigger one still, they’ll likely find it in Patagonia. For there’s a reason why so many fossils are lying in this dry steppe: the Andes. They started jutting upwards 70 million years ago and still haven’t stopped. Before then, the humidity from the Pacific used to reach the Patagonian plain whose thick, subtropical forests were full of life. When the Andes grew, the rains stopped, the forests dried out and the animals died, turning the whole of Patagonia into the genuine article — a real Jurassic park.