As Maxime Lasseron carefully digs into the earth in southwestern France, he is naturally hopeful that he will turn up something noteworthy. Little does the graduate student suspect, though, that he is about to find something huge – quite literally. In fact, what Lasseron uncovers during this paleontological excavation will become the biggest discovery ever in this fossil-rich region of Europe – and it’s enough to bring him and his colleagues to his knees.
Lasseron isn’t the only one to have wondered what lies in Angeac-Charente, though. Indeed, paleontologists have long flocked to the region – and not for the cognac vineyards that have made the area famous. At one time, you see, a river surrounded by towering coniferous trees snaked through the commune. And way back when, the locale also teemed with prehistoric life: reptiles, amphibians, fish and, most impressively of all, dinosaurs.
That was millions of years ago, of course, and yet dinosaurs still pop up in Angeac-Charente as experts unearth the remains of these prehistoric creatures. Since 2010, in fact, paleontologists have found approximately 7,500 bones that altogether belong to up to 45 different dinosaur species. And yet Lasseron’s 2019 discovery made serious waves – for one very big reason.
Angeac-Charente, by contrast, isn’t large; as of 2016, only 340 people lived there. Yet while the charming commune may not bustle with activity, it’s nevertheless an ideal destination for those who love nature and old European charm. Visitors can tour a 14th-century church, for instance, or stroll along the Charente river, which winds under old stone bridges.
Within Angeac-Charente’s surrounding region of Charente, by contrast, more than 350,000 have put down roots. During the French Revolution, this area was designated on March 4, 1790, as one of the country’s 83 original departments. Yet Charente had a successful economy long before this tumultuous period, and one product in particular set it apart from the rest.
Yes, when Charente became a department in the 18th century, it already had a history as a well-to-do area. For one thing, the productive salt marshes provided brisk trade. More famously, though, Charente was – and still is – the home of cognac. This variety of French brandy gets its name from the town in which it originated and which sits within the department.
To make bona fide French cognac, producers have to meet a series of legal requirements – right down to the grapes that they can use. Most choose ugni blanc grapes as the base of their spirit, though. Then, after that, anyone choosing to create cognac must distill the brandy twice in copper pots before the alcohol ages for a minimum of two years in oak barrels – which must also be sourced from France.
Aside from bringing us cognac, Charente also produces pineau – an aperitif made with grape juice and a dash of cognac eau-de-vie. And while the economy hasn’t boomed here for quite some time, that has given the department another draw. Thousands of British pensioners have chosen to retire to the pleasant surroundings of Charente’s picturesque countryside.
It should be known, though, that yet another group has flocked to the area for an entirely different reason. Yes, paleontologists have found Charente – as well as other nearby departments – to be replete with fossils from prehistoric times, although experts have only begun to excavate this area in recent years.
In 2009, for instance, paleontologists tilled the earth in Charente-Maritime – a department just to the west of Charente. There, they sifted through five tons of dirt and uncovered a few teeth that happened to belong to the oldest known marsupial in the world. And the remains of the tiny mammal – which has been given the name Arcantiodelphys marchandi – proved important for a slew of reasons.
For one, the teeth from the Arcantiodelphys marchandi not only proved that marsupials had evolved in Europe as well as in other parts of the world, but also that European fauna had developed in a similar manner to their counterparts in North America. Experts deduced, too, that this primitive species ultimately gave way to the marsupials that later moved south and into Australia.
However, in Charente, paleontologists have made even more stunning finds. In 2010 – so, one year after the discovery of the ancient marsupial teeth – a team traveled to Angeac-Charente for another dig. This time, however, they focused on the locale’s Audoin quarries, and their efforts were handsomely rewarded.
You see, a single excavation at the site confirmed that Angeac-Charente had one of France’s most abundant fossil deposits. Experts had long suspected that this area could have been home to many prehistoric creatures, but they didn’t actually confirm their theories until January 2010. And within eight months, they had begun the first dig, which lasted for 20 days in total.
During that excavation – which stretched from August to September 2010 – paleontologists uncovered a whopping 400 bones, with half of these proving to be of significance. Amid the most important finds were bones from three types of dinosaurs, two species of turtle and three kinds of crocodile.
Within the dinosaur bones, moreover, experts found a few teeth and bones from a small herbivore. But, as it turns out, most of these remains belonged to a large carnivore – one that measured nearly 30 feet in length. The specialists also unearthed a handful of femur bones, meaning they had discovered fossils from at least five individual dinosaurs – both young and fully-grown adults.
But the paleontologists’ most valuable find was a single femur bone, which came from a sauropod. And, based on the size of the item, experts deduced that the herbivore to which it had once belonged would have weighed 40 tons. Most excitingly of all, though, the team could use the femur to try and connect this French species to other similar remains that had been found in Spain.
In fact, all of these finds proved rare – especially in France, where few dinosaurs from the Lower Cretaceous period had ever been uncovered. And as with the sauropod’s femur, experts wanted to try and link the rest of their fossils to the remains of creatures that had been dug up in different parts of the world. Doing so, you see, could potentially pinpoint any shared characteristics of the dinosaurs that had roamed all over the planet at that time.
That wasn’t all, either, as the site also yielded fossilized plants. Along with the prehistoric animal bones, then, paleontologists had plenty to analyze after the 2010 dig. And the specialists hoped that their research could continue in tandem with a project that was intended to open the site up to the public. That way, visitors could observe as the group helmed further digs into the quarries.
Plus, the Angeac-Charente finds proved remarkable for yet another reason. For one, the paleontologists had uncovered bones that had remained incredibly well-preserved despite being roughly 130 million years old. How had that happened? Well, it’s likely down in part to how the area’s landscape once looked.
Specifically, all of the bones from the prehistoric creatures had found themselves swiftly interred into the earth because the Angeac-Charente area had once been a marsh. The clay sediment of the region thus quickly enveloped and preserved the bones – partly explaining why so many remnants ended up here in the first place.
In addition, Angeac-Charente once had a subtropical, humid climate that allowed an array of flora and fauna to flourish. In July 2019 French Museum of Natural History paleontologist Dr. Ronan Allain described the prehistoric landscape to Agence France-Presse, highlighting the range of habitats as well as the species that had called the area their home.
Allain said, “There was a river and large coniferous trees. Amphibians, crocodiles and fish lived in the swamp, and on dry land [there were] small and large dinosaurs. It was full of life.” As such, paleontologists had a great deal to learn from the dig site in Angeac-Charente – along with much more of it to excavate.
And while the site stretched over an area of 750 square meters in summer 2019, those who owned the quarry land in Angeac-Charente ultimately agreed to open up more of the property to paleontologists. Why? Well, a doctoral student who was participating in the tenth annual excavation in the area ended up finding something spectacular.
Maxime Lasseron – one of the experts on the scene at Angeac-Charente at the time – was the lucky digger in question. While studying for his bachelor’s degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, he had initially embarked on an internship with the French National Museum of Natural History in 2015. And it appears that Lasseron had found his passion, as he subsequently took part in further paleontological work experience and study for the museum.
Fast-forward to 2019, though, and Lasseron was undertaking his doctoral studies while working with the National Museum again. And owing to his position within the institution, this gave him the opportunity to take part in that year’s dig at the Angeac-Charente quarries. Little did Lasseron know, though, that he’d make the summer’s largest discovery – as well as the biggest find ever at the site.
During the excavation, Lasseron had begun to dig into a very thick layer of the former swamp’s clay. But while he went on to find a fossil, he couldn’t pull the artifact from the ground right away. Instead, he and the paleontological team kept finding more and more of it. Speaking to Agence France-Presse, the grad student recalled, “We were wondering how big [the fossil] was. We kept saying, ‘Oh, there’s more!’”
Then, with time and careful digging, Lasseron and the rest of the paleontologists finally uncovered the entire fossil, which turned out to be a six and a half-foot-long, 1,102-pound thigh bone. They also deduced that the femur had likely come from a sauropod – a creature so big that only baleen whales rival them for size.
Sauropods primarily roamed on land, making their incredible bulk all the more impressive. And even dwarf sauropods still ranked among the biggest creatures in their ecosystems, as they typically measured up to 20 feet long. The largest of the species, on the other hand, could potentially reach five times that length.
Despite their awe-inspiring size, though, sauropods ate only plants. They also had relatively tiny heads and lengthy necks, while their spatula-shaped teeth helped them chew through their herbivorous meals. And while sauropods additionally walked on four feet thanks to their strong, powerful back legs, their greatest defense mechanism actually came from elsewhere.
Yes, while sauropods’ body structures could vary, many had extra-long tails that they used as a protection system. They may well have used these appendages to injure or scare off predators, for example. And, interestingly, experts believe that sauropods also cracked their tails like whips as a signal to one another – or even to cause sonic booms.
When paleontologists first uncovered sauropods, however, the sheer size of the bones led them to assume that such creatures couldn’t feasibly have walked on land. After all, comparably sized whales weren’t able to roam the Earth, so how could a sauropod? This theory remained prominent from the 19th century into the early 1900s.
In the 1950s, though, a study into sauropod anatomy negated this theory. At that time, scientists claimed that the dinosaur’s lungs and airway could have collapsed under the pressure of just a few feet of water – meaning, of course, that it was unlikely to have been an ocean-dweller. That said, yet another of the sauropod’s anatomical features seemed to paint a completely different picture.
Most notably, sauropods’ bodies had what scientists call air sacs, which helped the massive dinosaurs to stay afloat in water. In essence, then, they couldn’t have submerged themselves even if they had wanted to – thus protecting their lungs from fatal damage while swimming. And fossil evidence seems to prove that the species did swim, as their massive front feet left imprints as they pulled themselves through water, while their shorter back legs were left free to float.
Yet while sauropods were not the aquatic creatures that scientists initially assumed, plenty of evidence remains to suggest that these massive animals did at least prefer to live near coastlines or otherwise wet habitats. And this propensity explains how sauropods ended up in Angeac-Charente – which, as we’ve previously mentioned, had once been a swamp.
What’s more, Lasseron’s discovery of a massive sauropod femur lent even more credence to that theory. And that relic had so much more to share about the species precisely because it had been so well preserved. Indeed, while speaking to French news site The Local, Angouleme Museum curator Jean-François Tournepiche described the item as being in “an exceptional state of conservation.”
The bone was in such good condition when Lasseron uncovered it, in fact, that there turned out to be a wealth of detail that wasn’t initially apparent. Allain explained, “We can see the insertions of muscles and tendons, scars.” At first, though, most of the paleontologists didn’t focus on such details, as they simply couldn’t believe that they had recovered such a huge remnant of prehistory.
Allain went on to explain just how uncommon it is to find an intact femur of this size, saying, “This is a very rare find, as large pieces tend to collapse on themselves, to fragment.” The majesty of the find wasn’t lost on Tournepiche, either. Of finding the massive fossil, he said, “It’s very moving.”
Based on the size of the femur, experts have guessed that the sauropod to which it had once belonged weighed between 40 and 50 tons. And they may be able to measure the sauropod’s body with even more accuracy through further research. For one thing, when the paleontologists dug up the femur, they also found a well-preserved pelvic bone.
Plus, the Angeac-Charente dig in 2010 had also uncovered a massive sauropod femur. So, following Lasseron’s discovery in 2019, the team wondered if the bone could have belonged to the same species of dinosaur – or maybe even to the same sauropod.
Only time and research will answer these questions. The same also goes for the Angeac-Charente dig sites, as one day, paleontologists will have uncovered all the secrets that this former marshland holds. Until then, though, they can bask in the quality and importance of the find from summer 2019. Allain put it simply to Reuters, concluding, “This is a major discovery.”