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Discovering a dinosaur begins with a walk.
It’s a walk with purpose, one where success is determined by many factors, some controllable, some not.
“I still to this day get fooled by fossil bones that look like rocks and rocks that look like bones,” says Matt Lamanna, the Mary R. Dawson Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “The difference can be really subtle. But then, other times, you walk up to a place and it’s just littered with bone fragments and teeth.”
Lamanna, the museum’s chief paleontologist, has taken many of these walks—in Antarctica, Australia, China, Egypt, and Greenland, among other places—and found the remnants of multiple new dinosaur species.
This year, he returned to the place where his career essentially began: Patagonia, a region at the southern end of South America rich with dinosaur fossils. “I get the question, ‘Why would you go all the way to Argentina?’” he says. “‘It’s really far away. Why would you go there when we have loads of dinosaurs right here in the U.S.?’”
The answer is simple: Much less is known about dinosaurs from South America than those from Europe, Asia, and especially North America.
For the past 25 years, Lamanna and his Argentinian colleagues have worked to narrow this gap, and to better understand the last non-avian dinosaurs to have lived in Patagonia. Argentinian scientists have been researching these kinds of dinosaurs for even longer. Despite those efforts, much of the rocks there remain unexplored by paleontologists, making them ripe for new discoveries.
“In the limited time I have on this planet I want to make the most scientifically significant fossil discoveries I can. I want to try to improve humanity’s knowledge of dinosaurs as much as I can,” Lamanna explains. “In my mind, the most likely place to do that is in the Southern Hemisphere continents.”
Lamanna’s first trip to Patagonia to work with a group of Argentinian researchers was in 1998, when he was still a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s been back several times since, but this year he returned to a spot of special significance: the Estancia Laguna Palacios, a vast wilderness of exposed rocks and cliffs with fossil-bearing strata some 95 million years old. It’s been 15 years since his last expedition there.
“In the limited time I have on this planet I want to make the most scientifically significant fossil discoveries I can. I want to try to improve humanity’s knowledge of dinosaurs as much as I can.”
– Matt Lamanna, Paleontologist at Carnegie Museum of Natural History
“I have this weird mix of emotions,” he said, 29 hours prior to departing from his home just north of Pittsburgh in mid-February. “The last time I was there I was 32. I’m 47 now. Do I still have what it takes to do this?”
His 1998 trip to the Estancia Laguna Palacios was Lamanna’s first international dinosaur expedition, and one that was transformative for him, personally and professionally. He developed deep friendships with the Argentinian paleontologists he worked with and began a scientific collaboration that has helped shape his career.
“We’re like brothers,” Lamanna said of his Argentinian colleagues. “I’m very much a guest on their project. I think I may add a little in terms of scientific expertise, I guess that’s why they keep inviting me back—though I think they might enjoy my company just a little bit, too. Either way, it’s a privilege to be invited to do these kinds of things.”
Two other associates from the museum—Kara Fikse and Linsly Church—joined Lamanna to document the journey, search for fossils, and help preserve any discoveries. Every fossil discovered stayed in Argentina so scientists there could continue to study them.
The Estancia Laguna Palacios looked just the way Lamanna had remembered it.
“Estancia” translates to “ranch” in Spanish, and the terrain looks a lot like a sunlit surface of the moon—a barren, windy plain with jagged rocks, eroded buttes, and spires in an array of rose, slate, and burgundy. The landscape is like Badlands National Park in South Dakota, but with rocks that are tens of millions of years older.
Located in the Chubut Province of Argentina, part of central Patagonia, the region has become well known among paleontologists for its dinosaur fossils from the Cretaceous Period, the last period in the age of dinosaurs.
Most days began about an hour’s drive from the group’s hostel-like cabin in the village of Buen Pasto, where the teams slept in bunk beds and shared dinners after each day’s work.
The primary mission was to uncover an elephant-sized, long-necked, plant-eating sauropod dinosaur known as a titanosaur. Thanks to a discovery years prior, Lamanna and his colleagues knew there was part of a skeleton buried in the area, and they were going to try to recover it. The titanosaur turned out to be much more complete than the researchers initially thought, preserving vertebrae from the neck, trunk, and hips, plus several large pelvic and limb bones.
But on the fourth day of the expedition, they stumbled on an unexpected find.
Lamanna, Fikse, and Church were revisiting a spot the team first canvassed on its 1998 trip where they discovered a probable new species of meat-eating dinosaur, called a megaraptorid theropod, although not enough of the specimen to be able to name it.
Known for their powerful forelimbs tipped by enormous claws, megaraptorids are still something of a mystery to paleontologists, who have yet to find a complete skeleton.
“It’s always been a little bit frustrating,” Lamanna admits.
They went back in 2000 to dig more and believed they had collected “everything there was to collect.”
That the skeleton remained incomplete is not unusual. Most of the time, when paleontologists discover a dinosaur, they don’t come close to finding the whole thing. “It’s extraordinarily rare to find a dinosaur that’s even 75 percent complete,” he says. “When you see these fully mounted skeletons in museums, even the best of them almost always have a few reconstructed parts.”
Carnegie Museum of Natural History has one of the most extensive sauropod collections in the world, but even the best of those skeletons isn’t totally complete.
As a result, “our understanding of these dinos does often build up incrementally,” Lamanna says.
The day of the unexpected find at the ranch was a sunny one.
Lamanna, Fikse, and Church walked along the same area, up a hillside, dispersing in a flat area against clementine-tinted cliffs. They were exploring a group of rocks called the Bajo Barreal Formation, a fossilized ecosystem that preserves dinosaurs and other animals that lived in what’s now central Patagonia about 95 million years ago.
As the wind began to pick up, Lamanna noticed something half buried in the dirt.
“I think I was at the site for about a minute or less, and I looked down and I saw a small piece of bone sticking partly out of the ground,” he recalls. “I realized right away it was part of a meat-eating dinosaur. Given where this bone was found, and the anatomical appearance of the bone, it’s a virtual certainty it belonged to that same megaraptorid specimen we discovered 25 years ago!”
Lamanna soon would identify his find as a foot bone, a piece of evidence that puts the team one step closer to being able to fully envision the dinosaur from the fossils they have and, eventually, name it.
“It was really wild to go back to a site that was so foundational for me, not only in my work in Patagonia but in a lot of my research since then,” he says. “To come back a quarter century later and find another bone of this thing was absolutely unexpected because we thought we’d gotten it all. We were really fired up.”
By the final week, the expedition had already been deemed a success.
The team had made several key discoveries—including bones of three different dinosaur species—when two of the Argentinian scientists unearthed another history-making fossil.
The group had moved to a new area, the Río Chico headwaters, where the rock formations date back roughly 70 million years. “We get these two brief windows into dinosaurs that lived about 70 and 95 million years ago, respectively, in this part of Patagonia,” Lamanna says.
They camped in a valley in the Río Chico region just in time for the most challenging weather of the trip. Strong winds kicked up swirls of dust, which got everywhere—in tents, in sleeping bags, in socks. Everyone wore ski goggles.
On the first day of the Río Chico dig, two Argentinian students unearthed a Cretaceous-aged mammal fossil, the only one ever found in the region. The students, Noelia Cardozo and Ivanna Mora, have been training in the lab led by paleontologists Gabriel Casal, Lucio Ibiricu, and Andrea De Sosa Tomas.
The unassuming fossil was an upper jawbone of a rodent-sized mammal containing at least four tiny teeth. The whole fossil is only about the width of a thumbnail.
It belongs to a now-extinct mammal called a meridiolestidan. During this time, mammals lived in the shadows of larger dinosaurs and so mostly remained comparatively small in size, Lamanna notes.
Sharing those discoveries with the rest of the world, even as the team was finding them, was Kara Fikse’s job. Fikse, director of donor engagement and stewardship at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, documented the journey and facilitated live video streams viewed by hundreds of people across the U.S., Canada, France, and Australia.
The aim was to give the public a behind-the-scenes view of what it was like to be a dinosaur scientist. She said that witnessing it firsthand was striking.
“Everyone’s face was streaked with dirt, everyone was just genuinely excited to be working together out there in the field,” Fikse recollects. “And from the scientific aspect, whenever they found something, that sort of emotion of excitement and passion for the work they were doing was pretty contagious.”
It was all a new experience for Linsly Church, curatorial assistant for vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Natural History.
“This was an exciting opportunity to go on my first expedition and my first trip to Argentina,” Church says. “I was looking forward to learning more about how fossils are found, stabilized, and removed from the ground. It was a great experience and I got to meet and work with so many wonderful people!”
During the expedition she learned to apply plaster-soaked burlap strips over the fossils to protect them when they were uncovered, and helped to dig the trenches needed in order to extract each bone.
At the Río Chico, she found a toe bone of another new megaraptorid species that had been previously found at the site.
It was one of many discoveries, including parts of duck-billed dinosaurs and turtles, that made the expedition so successful. The new mammal fossil discovered by the Argentinian students was especially groundbreaking.
“By itself, this fossil would’ve made our expedition a smashing success,” Lamanna exclaims. “The fact that we also found parts of four different dinosaur species put it totally over the top.”
Finding a dinosaur bone in the ground is only the first step in what is often a years-long journey in understanding what a fossil is and where it fits into the broader record of life on Earth.
This long and arduous adventure of fossil study and preservation begins in the lab.
In the middle of their Patagonia trip, the team decamped to the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory at the National University of Patagonia San Juan Bosco in the city of Comodoro Rivadavia. There, Lamanna and his Argentinian collaborators, including Lucio Ibiricu, study discoveries from the field.
“We share a lot of ideas about papers and projects, so we are going to continue in this line,” Ibiricu says. “We are sure that we are going to continue working with Matt for several years, sharing field seasons, papers, projects, and hopefully sharing students to increase their experience.”
As investments in paleontology labs and student training in Argentina continue to grow, more discoveries will follow.
“By working together, the scientific impact we can make is potentially very significant,” Lamanna says.
Because of how Earth has evolved, Cretaceous dinosaurs from the Southern Hemisphere are usually quite different from their northern counterparts, having evolved along separate evolutionary pathways for tens of millions of years after the supercontinent Pangaea broke apart.
“By working together, the scientific impact we can make is potentially very significant.”-Matt Lamanna
Expeditions like this exemplify the museum’s mission, says Gretchen Baker, the Daniel G. and Carole L. Kamin Director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
The museum’s collections are “alive and evolving,” she notes, as scientists investigate them to help us understand life on Earth.
“Sending Matt on this expedition has incredible importance to his own research questions,” Baker says. She adds that, through the livestreams of their expedition, Lamanna and his colleagues were able to show that science isn’t just something that happens in a lab or at someone’s desk. “It’s very much happening in the greater world around us, and there are many aspects of being a scientist.
“The whole time that they were in the field, they were connecting back with visitors here, through their live feeds, and really making science alive,” Baker says. “That’s why we want to continue supporting scientists’ research and exploring their questions.”
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Tags:Science & Nature