Giants at the End of Earth: Dr. Lacovara’s New Titanic Dinosaur

By Maia Livengood
Photos by Dr. Lacovara

January 29, 2010 — Children are fascinated by dinosaurs. Fossil museums, such as the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, create an avenue for engendering interest in the sciences at an early age. Few, though, are fortunate enough to turn that fascination into a successful career in the field of paleontology.

Dr. Lacovara’s New Titanic DinosaurBut one Drexel professor of biology, Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, has done exactly that.

In his recent Dean’s Seminar “Giants at the End of the Earth,” Lacovara discussed his seven-year journey toward discovering the most complete skeleton of a super-massive dinosaur ever found.

Lacovara’s project began in 2003 with a staggering 10 airport layovers, hours of driving, and finally, rafting down a glacial stream into Patagonia. Known as one of the harshest environments in the world, Patagonia is larger than Texas and spans the southern portions of Argentina and Chile. Due to the arid climate and severe temperatures, little vegetation grows on the land mass. In fact, in Lacovara’s field area, roughly the size of Connecticut, only three dwellings exist.

Patagonia is, however, an excellent location for paleontological digs.

Desert winds and streams, aided by the uplifting Andes Mountains, have exposed vast swaths of fossiliferous sedimentary deposits throughout the region. Previous digs have uncovered shark vertebrae and petrified wood, giving the dinosaurs of the period a strong environmental context. While the team’s dig site made operations physically challenging, the mountain-top location yielded plenty of exposed Cretaceous fossils.

On January 22, 2004, Lacovara’s team made a shocking discovery: a femur bone measuring 2.2 meters in length belonging to a dinosaur with an estimated weight of 60 tons, roughly equivalent to the mass of 12 African elephants. Because of its size and age, Lacovara knew they had discovered a new species of titanic dinosaur.

Unfortunately, the mineralized bones proved difficult to transport through the rough terrain. Using a raft, two gauchos, a stretcher toboggan, a horse, a front-end loader dump truck, a fork lift, and many bags of plaster, the bones made it to safety at the close of the 2004 digging season.

When Lacovara returned to another site in Patagonia, he was able to leverage the discovery for funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Consequently, for his 2005 expedition, he was able to bring a new crew and a group of student researchers.

On the first day of the 2005 dig, a second 2 meter femur, attached to another leg bone, was found. By the end of the day, 10 bones in total were unearthed. Articulated vertebrae were unearthed three weeks later, as well as portions of the hip, said Lacovara. He went on to joke: “Essentially, I found the biggest butt ever.”

Piece by piece, year by year, Lacovara and his team mapped and collected hundreds of bones. By 2008, they had excavated the skeleton of a stunningly complete super-massive dinosaur.

The Patagonian bones arrived at the port of Philadelphia on May 5, 2009, on a research loan from the government of Argentina. They are currently housed in three working laboratories: Drexel’s “Dinosaur Hall,” the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg. There are about 75 volunteers and students that split the six days per week, five nights per week shifts. The positions are highly sought after; in fact, a student from UCLA took a semester leave to volunteer with the research team.

Lacovara has assembled an outstanding crop of doctoral students in vertebrate paleontology. Two of his graduate students, Elena Schroeter and Paul Ullmann, have been awarded the prestigious National Sciences Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The awards, $122,000 each, cover tuition, stipend, and research expenses for three years of doctoral work. Both students are delving into the exciting new field of molecular paleontology. Elena Schroeter is attempting to recover actual tissue from 65- million-year-old dinosaur and crocodile fossils, and is collaborating with Dr. Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University (Schweitzer shocked the world five years ago when she extracted protein from a Cretaceous age T. rex). Paul Ullmann, who has the distinction of being the only person to ever find dinosaur fossils in the whole state of Nevada, is working to understand the geological and biological processes which might allow for the preservation of ancient tissue. In addition to their NSF fellowships, both students are recipients of Drexel’s Provost Fellowships, awarded to the university’s most promising incoming graduate students.

“When they graduate,” said Lacovara, “they will be members of the first generation of an entirely new branch of science.”

Another of Lacovara’s graduate students, Lucio Ibiricu, is a Patagonian and will be the first native Patagonian to earn a Ph.D. in paleontology. His work involves an analysis of the evolution and function of the tail in extremely massive dinosaurs.

In addition to examining the dinosaur fossils themselves, team members are studying the sediments, fossil flora, and smaller fossils of vertebrate animals associated with the massive find. The goal is to place the new dinosaur in an environmental context.

“We’re not interested in collecting dinosaurs as trophies,” Lacovara said. “We want to understand them in their ecological setting: what did they eat? Who ate them? What role did they play in their environment? And more importantly, what can we learn from them about the changes occurring on Earth today? Dinosaurs lived in a hothouse world; how did they cope?”

At the Academy of Natural Sciences, glass walls allow visitors to watch researchers clean the fossils, providing a true gateway to science. And upon the completion of Drexel’s Integrated Sciences Building (ISB), currently under construction on the northeast corner of 33rd and Chestnut Streets, Lacovara and his team will soon have a new, customized lab space to continue working with the fossils.

Paleontologists like Lacovara and his team of student researchers are quickly expanding the field by exploring the boundaries between the geosphere and the biosphere, traditional paleontology and molecular biology, evolution and deep time. His work is an excellent example of integration across disciplines, furthering our understanding of the Earth’s pre-history.

More information about the Patagonian Dinosaur Project can be found on Drexel's Department of Biology website.

Click on the images below for a larger size.

Maia Livingood '12 is a Business Administration major with concentrations in Finance and Economics, as well as an English minor. Working for the College of Arts and Sciences, she has developed a strong interest in publication management and hopes to build upon the experience throughout her professional career.