By Meredith Kurz
Instead of pigeons in Central Park, imagine their feathered ancestors, as tall as 5-story brownstones and about two-thirds of a city block long, lumbering on the lawns. Lining them up, tooth to tail, 22 would stretch across the width of the park. The Titanosaur would tip the scale at over 70 tons, which is a bit rough on the playgrounds… and squirrels. This is the newest permanent exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and they had to make serious room for this historically huge visitor. This digital rendering shows how they fit it in the room.
This Titanosaur was just a teenager. They grow even larger and longer. “We know it’s not a full grown species because of the neck vertebrae. In adults, the vertebrae become fused. Also, bones can sometimes have rings, like trees do, so we can age out a dinosaur,” explained Dr. Norell, Macaulay Curator in the Division of Paleontology and division chair. What’s amazing is that these enormous beasts are hatched from about a volley ball sized egg, and grow quickly to their full height.
The fourth floor is the new digs for the Titanosaur cast of this 65 foot tall, 131 foot long dinosaur. The museum stretched its long neck and tail out of the exhibition room into adjoining hallways. This is not a house pet sized creature. However, if you did take one home, don’t worry; it’s an herbivore, so you won’t be mistaken for an hors-d’oeuvre.
Titanosaur bones have been found on every continent. However they’ve found larger species in the less-explored South American countries. Ours came from Argentina. The ancestral link between dinosaurs and birds is a more recent discovery and inspired the museum’s upcoming Spring exhibit “The Dinosaurs Among Us” which will give us the visual story of how this complex and subtle evolution unfolded.
I spoke with Dr. Mark Norell while waiting for the big reveal. One of his past students, Diego Pol, was one of the co-leaders of the excavation. He explained that after Dr. Pol shared his discovery with his professor, another museum curator, Michael Novacek asked for maybe one of the real bones to display in the museum. Then it grew into, “Hey, why don’t exhibit a model of it in the museum?” So the idea “grew wings” and after getting the funding and hiring Research Casting International, we had this beautiful monster on the 4th floor.
I ran into Peter May of Research Casting International while I was trying to get a close up of one of the dino toes. His company is the largest casting company in the world, has built 750 skeletons and when Spielberg needed a T Rex skeleton? He got Mr. May on the phone. They had the privilege and daunting task of putting together the largest model in history. His company has a 20-year relationship with AMNH. He and his team were given the complex task of putting together the 223 piece bone structure looming above us. His company went down to Argentina and scanned bones, took 3D pictures, and made casts. For instance, the left front leg bone in front of me was an exact duplicate, but they didn’t have a right side one to match, so he reverse cast it, and yet made it look like it had unique aging and cracks.
The effort took 18 months for the dig, including seven excavations with 25 people on each excavation, taking advantage of spring and summer hours for maximum daylight hours. They had to build a road so that they could bring heavy equipment in, and then take carefully plastered bones out (the plaster casting protects the ancient bones on their journey).
All the collaborators agreed that if not for tight teamwork spanning countries, scientific fields, and the generous funding of several foundations, we wouldn’t be enjoying this spectacle today.
“The science of paleontology has changed, which was once part of the field of geology. Now I call myself a ‘biologist who works on fossils’,” said Dr. Norell.
More than 5 million museum goers, this year, will tilt their heads up and wonder at this ancient creature which is the centerpiece for this awesome learning opportunity.