It’s not every day that you’ll make a shocking paleontological discovery when you’re out for a walk. But that’s exactly what happened to Jose Antonio Nievas when he went for a stroll on his family’s farm on Christmas Day in 2015.
The farm is in Argentina, just 25 miles south of Buenos Aires. But while the holding may be close to civilization, the discovery that Nievas made was the stuff of the bizarre and far distant past. And to begin with he had no idea what the find was.
Nievas was close to a riverbank when he spotted a black, shell-like structure in the mud. Naturally, then, when he got home he told his family about his discovery. “My husband went out to the car and when he came back he said, ‘Hey, I just found an egg that looks like it came from a dinosaur.’ We all laughed because we thought it was a joke,” Nievas’ wife Reina Coronel told Associated France Press.
The “egg” was mostly hidden in the mud, and so Nievas wasn’t sure at first just how big it was. But as he dug around the strange object, he soon realized that it was huge – far too big for any dinosaur egg. Indeed, measuring 3 feet wide, what he had found was no egg at all.
That said, what Nievas had uncovered was still a shell of sorts – just not one meant for hatching out of. In fact, it was the armor of a long dead mammal that lived way back, around 10,000 years ago.
Yes, the armor belonged to a genus of armadillo family ancestors called Glyptodon, which originally roamed the forests of the South American continent during the Pleistocene epoch. Fossils indicate that the animal looked like a flattened out version of a Volkswagen Beetle and weighed just as much as said vehicle.
And even better, Nievas had found a shell that was still intact – a rare treasure indeed. In fact, the shell of a Glyptodon can tell a lot about the animal’s history. And, like a fingerprint, each husk has a unique pattern.
Indeed, the shell is really Glyptodon armor, which was used to deter larger predators interested in taking a bite out of the herbivorous animals. Larger glyptodonts tended to forage for many different types of plants, while the smaller species would have had a more restrictive diet. Presumably helping toward such conclusions, fossils of these giant armadillo cousins have been found throughout Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.
But glyptodonts relied on their armor for another reason as well. Each animal also had an armored tail, and paleontologists suspect that the creatures fought among themselves. To this end, each would have used its mace-like appendage to settle disagreements or even bash other given glyptodonts into submission – with enough force to break the other’s armor.
Of course, though, any way the shell was used, it was clearly an impressive piece of defensive hardware. Indeed, it took about 1,000 1-inch-thick bony plates to form a Glyptodon carapace. And to support such a structure on their backs, the animals developed stout legs, fused vertebrae and massive shoulders.
With their hulking shells, it’s been said that Glyptodon bore a resemblance to turtles. Yet while this may be so, paleontologists say the similarity is completely circumstantial – or, more specifically, the result of two very distinct lineages evolving similar methods to each deal with their environments. Curiously, in fact, the differences are more telling. For instance, glyptodonts didn’t retract their heads into their shells. Instead, each had its own helmet in the form of a bone cap at the top of its skull.
Interestingly, the shell that Nievas discovered displays some signs of damage, although scientists aren’t convinced that it is the result of any past battle. Still, the shell does reveal some other interesting tidbits about this particular Glyptodon.
For starters, the shell is smaller than usual. Talking to MailOnline, Dr. Bill Sellers of the University of Manchester explained that the carapaces of glyptodonts were usually twice this size, each measuring closer to 6 feet. But it is very likely that Nievas simply found a juvenile, or perhaps even a smaller example of the species.
And though many often rightly question pictures found on the internet, experts who have viewed Nievas’ photos have supported his find as being authentic. For example, Adrian Lister of London’s Natural History Museum went as far as to tell MailOnline that “it would be an ingenious hoaxer who would construct such a thing.”
In fact, it’s the greenish tinge along parts of the shell where it was exposed to the river that provide the biggest clue to this Glyptodon being the real deal. As water pours past the banks of streams such as this, it slowly erodes the mud. This in turn eventually leaves parts of fossils like this shell open to the elements, and the fluctuation in water levels leads to the discoloration seen here.
Curiously, experts aren’t sure how the hole pictured here may have developed, but it’s most likely neither battle damage nor a normal part of the carapace. It’s certainly not the hole for the head, as that part of the carapace is, in this photo, buried on the other side of the shell, deeper into the bank of mud. And the animal’s tail would have been lower still on its body. The best guess is, then, that the shell broke more recently to form this cavity.
Unfortunately, of course, we don’t have any Glyptodon running around today to tell us more. Along with a lot of other giant animals, the genus began to die out toward the end of the last Ice Age. That was around 10,000 years ago, and it’s likely that the specimen found at Nievas’ farm perished some time around then.
In any case, there’s something sort of magical about Nievas’ discovery. Stumbling across the incredible armored remains of some long dead beast while you’re out for a walk sounds very much like the start of a science-fiction novel. But there’s an interesting real-world message here as well.
Sometimes we forget about what’s under our feet. There are millions of years of history buried just out of reach, and the Glyptodon on Nievas’ family farm proves that there’s so much more of it just waiting to be discovered.
So the next time you’re out for a walk, keep an eye on the riverbeds, in the long grass and on those muddy patches where no one else pays much attention. You never know: you, too, might find the armor of a long dead cousin of an armadillo. Stranger things have happened.
This is far from the only dino-related discovery that has amazed history buffs over the years, though. While dinosaurs may have been extinct for millions of years, there’s something about these enormous creatures that still manages to capture the imaginations of people all over the world. Perhaps it’s this which makes one particular discovery in Utah so enthralling – above and beyond the scientific importance of the find.
Scientists believe that dinosaurs first began walking the earth sometime around 235 million years ago, in what’s known as the Triassic period. Then, for almost 200 million years, they were the dominant creatures on the planet. Our current records show that there were at least 1,000 different species of the giant reptiles.
People, meanwhile, first began finding dinosaur fossils in the 19th century. And since then the giant beasts have constantly captured the public’s imagination. Perhaps at least in part thanks to that, furthermore, there’s a significant stream of funding allocated to finding more remains – which in turn leads to even more exciting discoveries.
Now one of the most important sites in the United States for dinosaur discoveries lies in Utah. The area, known as the Grand Staircase, is in the south of the state. And while the first dinosaur skeletons were discovered here back in the 1880s, there are a number of reasons why the locale has become so important to paleontologists in more recent times.
After the initial rush of discoveries, there wasn’t much of a push to continue digging at the Grand Staircase. That all changed towards the end of the last century, however, thanks in part to a raft of new scientists eager to further their careers. And the geology of the area has given them ample opportunity to do just that.
The Grand Staircase is essentially a series of layers of different kinds of rocks. These layers run out from the Grand Canyon in a series of steps, which give the area its name. Interestingly, too, the rock formations are also all of different ages. And because of a quirk in Utah’s climate, dinosaur remains are often found not far from ground level.
In areas further south in the United States, a dryer climate means that soil erosion is a lot slower. In areas to the north, on the other hand, a wet climate means more forests. And more forests mean more roots and organisms in the soil, which can lead to fossils being wrecked. Those aren’t problems that occur in southern Utah, though.
While there is rainfall in southern Utah, it’s nowhere near as strong as it is further north. That means erosion happens – which in turn helps to bring fossils to the surface – and yet the ground isn’t wet enough for forests to take hold. Thanks to this near-perfect climate, then, dinosaur remains are frequently discovered in the Grand Staircase area. And that has seen paleontologists flock to the region.
However, perhaps the most alluring aspect of the Grand Staircase for more junior paleontologists is what it could mean for their careers. That’s because there’s a good chance that anything they do discover there is going to belong to a new species. Digging in rocks that have yet to be explored often means finding something new, and that’s a huge draw for anyone wanting to make their name in the field.
Interestingly, though, it’s not the newness of this latest discovery that makes it so astounding. The remains discovered recently in southern Utah belong to a species already known to experts. However, sometimes it’s not the relevance of a given discovery, but rather the sheer size of it, that’s important.
Teratophoneus curriei strode across the planet in the Late Cretaceous period, some 77 million years ago. It belongs to the same family of meat-eating dinosaurs as the world-famous Tyrannosaurus rex. But while the latter dinosaur is more well known, the former has by far the more gruesome name.
You see, Teratophoneus curriei’s Latin name translates as “monstrous murderer” – and it’s not hard to understand why paleontologists christened it so. While a fully grown Teratophoneus has never been discovered, bones that once belonged to young adults have. And using these, scientists have suggested that the giant creature was 16 to 20 feet long and weighed nearly 1,500 pounds.
When paleontologists first classified the dinosaur, they didn’t have a lot to go on, mind you. A few pieces of fossilized bone had been discovered, but that was it. Now, though, something truly remarkable has been dug out of the ground in southern Utah. It’s the most complete fossil of a member of the tyrannosaur family ever found in the southwest of the United States.
Scientists reckon that an incredible three quarters of the dinosaur’s skeleton has been preserved. Moreover, the monumental find is likely to offer a unique glimpse into the history of the tyrannosaurs that lived in what is now the southern United States. The finding of the bones is, however, only part of the story; retrieving them was a major chapter in itself.
The discovery was made back in 2015 by a paleontologist called Alan Titus, but it has taken almost two years for the fossil to be fully excavated. That is due in part to the location where the bones were discovered. It was by no means easy for the excavation team to get to the spot.
Paleontologist Randall Irmis has described some of the difficulties that the team faced. Irmis is an associate professor at the University of Utah as well as a curator at the National History Museum of Utah – and this is how he outlined the challenges. “Many areas are so remote that often we need to have supplies dropped in and the crew hikes in,” he said.
In this case, everything that the paleontologists needed, they carried to the site. That included all of their tools, the plaster they needed to make casts of the bones and a good deal of water as well. For three weeks in May 2017 they worked on the find. And then, after another two weeks of preparation later in the year, the Teratophoneus was finally ready to be moved.
The remains were subsequently taken by helicopter to the Natural History Museum of Utah. Irmis estimates that it took around 3,000 man hours to get the dinosaur fossil remains ready and onto the chopper. But that’s by no means the end of the story. There’s still an awful lot of work to be done on the bones.
At least another 10,000 hours are needed just to get the dinosaur ready for inspection. It’s a long, painstaking process, then, but the results could well give us a much better understanding of the southern tyrannosaur species. We know that they were decidedly different from their northern cousins, and this huge find might well help tell us why.
More than that, though, the new discovery further proves that southern Utah is an incredibly important part of the United States when it comes to understanding dinosaurs. The vast majority of species discovered there have, so far, been unique to the area. And while the exact nature of the new mysteries that the Teratophoneus holds remains to be seen, it’s undoubtedly another fascinating find in a fascinating part of the world.