Sometime in the Late Cretaceous period, a 70-ton titanosaur was chomping leaves in Patagonia, unaware it was destined for stardom 100 million years later. As of today, it's towering over curious humans on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
This titanosaur, whose skeleton is 122 feet (37 meters) long, may be the largest dinosaur ever found. It's still mysterious, though, since it was only unearthed two years ago and hails from a previously unknown species that hasn't been formally described. It's now at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) to highlight a "new golden age of dinosaur discovery," according to curator Mark Norell.
"Paleontology has become less geological and more biological in the last 20 years or so," Norell says in a statement on the exhibit, part of a 2016 focus on new dinosaur science at the AMNH. "Our access to advanced and extremely precise scientific tools like CT scanners and other X-ray imaging techniques lets us ask questions beyond 'what species is this, and when did it die?' Now we can look at complex topics like the evolution of dinosaur brains and the presence and color of dinosaur feathers."
The display skeleton doesn't include the titanosaur's actual fossils, the AMNH notes, since those are too heavy to mount. Instead, it uses lightweight 3-D prints made of fiberglass and based on digital copies of the original fossils. Those still convey the incredible size, though, which is already leaving early visitors awe-struck.
The titanosaur exhibit will run until Jan. 1, 2020, so there's no particular rush. In the meantime, here are a few facts to put this enormous animal in perspective:
1. We're still getting acquainted. This species was discovered so recently that it doesn't have an official name yet. It's mostly just being called "The Titanosaur," although that technically refers to a broader group of sauropod dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period. Titanosaurs were diverse and widespread plant-eating behemoths, including some of the largest animals in history, like Argentinosaurus.
The new titanosaur was found by a farm worker in 2014, and paleontologists later excavated more than 200 bones — 70 percent of the skeleton. They've submitted a scientific paper and are now awaiting word on publication, according to the Wall Street Journal, noting the species can't be named until that happens.
2. It may be the biggest dinosaur known to science. Paleontologists still aren't sure how old this dino was when it died, but as Ars Technica reports, they do know it wasn't a mature adult because certain bones hadn't fused together yet.
Its skeleton spans 122 feet, though, which challenges some of the largest dinosaurs ever found — Argentinosaurus, for one, may have reached 120 feet in length. If the unnamed titanosaur really was still growing, adults of its species could have been even longer. But as National Geographic's Brian Switek wrote in 2014, the fossil record is still too spotty to reliably compare sizes of species like this.
3. It weighed as much as 10 African elephants. This titanosaur species had relatively light bones, which helps explain how it managed to move around such a big body. Despite that, however, it weighed 70 U.S. tons (63 metric tons), which is roughly equivalent to the weight of 10 African elephants, according to the AMNH.
Along with the 3-D-printed skeleton, the exhibit also includes some of the best-preserved bones from the 2014 dig, including a femur that's nearly 8 feet long.
Dinosaur Femur. Man for scale. pic.twitter.com/Xnw9vxfqyj— Gautam Trivedi (@Gotham3) September 17, 2015
4. We're going to need a bigger museum. With its neck upright, the titanosaur would be tall enough to peek inside inside windows on a building's fifth floor. Its skeleton is too big to fit inside the museum's expansive Orientation Center — and thus so is the cast — so curators had to use some extra creativity.
"Its 39-foot-long neck extends out toward the elevator banks and its head, which hangs 9.5 feet above the floor, peeks out of the gallery to welcome visitors to the fossil floor," the AMNH explains in a fact sheet.
5. Some assembly was required. The life-sized cast took six months to make, with experts from Canada and Argentina basing it on 84 excavated fossil bones. AMNH then had to put the parts together, a daunting task captured in this time-lapse video:
6. It makes apatosaurus seem puny. The AMNH also has another hefty sauropod, apatosaurus, on display near the new exhibit. Apatosaurus isn't small by any means, measuring 86 feet long and weighing between 30 to 40 tons when it was alive. Still, that's just 70 percent of the new titanosaur's length, and about half its weight.
7. A mammal is more massive. This titanosaur is surely one of the largest and heaviest animals to ever inhabit Earth, but unfortunately it died out long before humans came along. This exhibit lets us feel what it's like to be in the presence of such a massive animal, making it seem a little less mythical. But another, still-living animal could give us a similar experience — and it's a mammal.
The AMNH has a model of a blue whale, the largest animal on Earth today and widely considered the most substantial species ever. The baleen whales can be up to 100 feet (31 meters) long, and the AMNH's model is about 94 feet. That's nearly 30 feet shorter than its titanosaur skeleton. But even if the extinct reptile was longer, blue whales can grow to 200 tons — more than double the weight of the titanosaur.