Artist's impression of Leikupal laticauda Photo credit: Jorge A. González

By Matthew Owens

Scientists have unearthed a new species of dinosaur, Leikupal laticauda, in Argentinian Patagonia that belongs to the same family as Diplodocus. The discovery provides the youngest record of a Diplodocid anywhere on earth and is the first found in South America.

Until now, scientists had thought that an extinction event around the time of the Jurrassic/Cretaceous boundary (144 million years ago) led to the demise of the dinosaurs. But new research suggests that Diplodocids roamed the earth for much longer.

Diplodocids had their heyday in the Jurassic period (between 144 and 200 million years ago) with numerous species found in North America, the Iberian Peninsula, and even in the southern hemisphere (Africa). But there was little sign of the Sauropods after this point. At the end of the Jurassic period they appeared to have suffered global extinction, yet the new study, published today in the online journal PLOS ONE, suggests that they lived on in South America.

“Although Patagonia is famous for its dinosaurs, most of them come from the Upper Cretaceous period, and a few from the Late Lower Cretaceous. This is the first dinosaur from the Early Lower Cretaceous in Patagonia.”, explains lead author Dr Pablo Gallina from Universidad Maimónides in Argentina.

“This Sauropod dinosaur belongs to the Diplodocidae, a family found in North America, Europe and Africa. This is the first record of this entire family for South America. Moreover, members of this family of Sauropods were never found in Cretaceous strata, so this finding shows the survival of this group in Cretaceous times.”

Partly funded by proceeds from the film Jurassic Park, the study is the culmination of several years of fieldwork. The remains were initially discovered on a 2010 dig in the Neuquén Basin, in Argentinian Patagonia. Dr Gallina describes the find: “A few hours after starting, a site was discovered with bones very damaged by erosion… In other circumstances we wouldn’t have collected them, but the search didn’t throw up any new sites with bones, so a little reluctantly, we worked on the fossil site in the dim hope that below the many disintegrated bones some in better shape would appear.” Two visits later bones encased in plaster started to amass in Neuquen’s Museo Bachmann de Villa El Chocón.

The researchers were able to diagnose a new species by inspecting bones along the tail and comparing them with other known specimens. “It has unique characteristics in the vertebrae of the tail that portray a Sauropod with a wide-based tail with a strong musculature, allowing it remarkable control and fortitud.” said Gallina.

At just nine metres long, the new dinosaur is the smallest member of the Diplodocid family but despite its modest size it was able to very effectively defend itself from predators. The wide vertebrae and air pockets in the bones lent it a devastating whipping tail, one more powerful than any of its relatives. The species was named Leikupal laticauda by South American researchers  after the Mapuche Native American words for vanishing (lein) and family (kupal) and the latin for ‘wide tail’.

Commenting on the finding, Dr Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum in London said, “Leikupal is an interesting and welcome surprise. Finding a close relative of the same lineage that includes the iconic North American dinosaurs Diplodocus and Apatosaurus in South America is a little unexpected, especially as Leikupal occurs later in time than the other members of this particular dinosaur group. It helps to illustrate the fact that even when we think that we have a reasonable understanding of dinosaur distributions around the world, fieldwork and new discoveries can continue to have major effects on our views.”

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