Chris Coughenour: Mega-Dinosaur Discovery

Chris Coughenour, the chair of Pitt-Johnstown’s energy and earth resources department, proudly remembers being part of a team of geologists and paleontologists on a 2005 dig in Patagonia. But he specifically recalls that moment on the first day when the group unearthed what turned out to be the mega-dinosaur Titanosaurian sauropod, known as Dreadnoughtus.

Coughenour (seated) at the Dreadnoughtis dig site

“Late in the first day, a small piece of exposed bone was seen lying on the surface by a team member,” he said.

“As the team began to excavate around it, we realized it was a large limb bone. We also encountered more bones as we attempted to unearth what turned out to be the ‘discovery femur,’ which was about six-feet long.”

Dreadnoughtus is the most complete giant titanosaur yet discovered.

From that initial discovery, the dig became only more interesting.

“We just kept finding more material as we worked the quarry,” he said. “Each of us worked to ‘pedestal’ bones, and excavate around it so it could be jacketed and plastered and then removed. I found numerous bones as I worked to prepare other bones for removal. Ultimately, we needed a large back-hoe and dump truck to remove the material collected each season.

“We ended up recovering almost half of the bones from that particular individual specimen, which is quite unusual.”

Coughenour, then a doctoral student at Drexel University, worked on the excavation site for two field seasons (each about two-months) in Patagonia, a region located at the southern end of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. The excavation yielded almost half of the bones from that particular specimen, which had a total body length of 26 meters (85 feet).

The team was led to the region due to similar finds in nearby areas. “We truly had no idea what exactly we would find, however, until the moment of discovery,” Coughenour said.

He admits that, while the result was incredible, there was nothing special about the process. It still required hard work.

“Paleontology has changed little since the 19th century,” he said. “In most cases the best device to find fossilized material is still a trained human eye. Once found, the excavation proceeded with shovels, pick axes and, for more careful work, awls and dental picks. We ended up excavating a fairly large quarry that was over six-feet deep in many places and probably close to 1,000 square feet in area.”

Coughenour termed the venture a success that reaches beyond the discovery. “We recovered nearly half of the organism. That may not sound like much at first thought, but it is exceedingly rare to find that much of a single titanosaur. Many have been described from only several bones, so this specimen will likely lead to further insights into titanosaur anatomy and physiology.”

He explained that the finds are to be analyzed and later returned to Argentina.

“The bones will be shipped to Rio Gallegos sometime next year,” he said. “Although the bones were prepared and studied in the United States (at Drexel University, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh), Argentine federal law dictates that the bones are property of the Argentine government and must be returned to be housed in the museum of the province in which they were found.”