The Fernbank

I was in Atlanta recently and spent the afternoon at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. We met my oldest daughter and her family there, and spent a nice dry day inside while clouds let loose out of doors.

 

The Fernbank is a pretty cool local museum with plenty to keep you and your kids occupied. The cost of entry is reasonable and there are perks for annual subscribers like Martini and Salsa Friday held underneath the imposing skeleton of Argentinosaur. I can’t salsa, but therein lies the magic of the martinis.

But that Argentinosaurus! Wow. That thing alone is worth the trip and the cost of admission. This is a full-sized Argentinosaurus huinculensis, mounted smack in the middle of the museum. The mount fills the entire center of the building. This is one big dinosaur. The biggest one on the planet that we know of. Per the advertising blurb at the museum, the dinosaur stretched to over 130 feet long and weighed in at over a hundred tons. It reportedly ate a rather unpalatable diet of coniferous trees and lived about 90 million years ago. I can hardly imagine how many pounds of pine needles this thing would have to chew to extract the calories needed to keep it moving.

Argentinosaurus

Photo Credit Dennis Mitton

I was surprised that the animal’s front feet weren’t really feet but just simple stumps. This makes sense as we use toes for balance and for pushing off. No need of that here for this lumbering giant. But all that weight resting on four pads? I asked one of the museum staff if the depiction was accurate and she confirmed that they had no toes. The surface of the feet was about a square meter. If the animal weighed ninety tons and the weight was roughly evenly distributed that means that a front leg supported 20 tons or more – 40,000 pounds! It’s almost impossible for me to imagine that kind of weight in a living thing. How was the foot padded? Bend your elbow and rest the point of it on a table and then start to put weight on it. It doesn’t take much leaning to see how little weight your elbow supports without pain. This thing must have had pads a foot thick.

Man laying nest to dinosaur bones

Laying nest to Argentinosaur leg bones

I was disappointed to learn how little of any actual animal we have though I understand the difficulties fossilization and of finding fossils. First discovered in 1987, a farmer found what he thought was a huge piece of petrified wood. In fact, it was a fossilized leg bone from Argentinosaurus. Several ribs and vertebrae were later found along with a hip fragment. I am no dinosaur expert and it’s interesting to me how the animal is pieced together. The nostrils are placed on the top of the skull and there are a series of backward facing spines along the underside of the neck. For what purpose? There is considerable controversy – at least among amateurs – over whether or not these behemoths could walk. I don’t care how big their leg bones are, this is a whole lotta weight for a skeletal scaffold to carry. Because of this, there is an argument that Argentinosaurus and other titanosaurs were aquatic in a similar way to modern hippopotami. I don’t fully understand the professional vitriol against the aquatic argument. Though no skull has been found (to my knowledge), the dino is pieced together with a head that breathed through the top of the skull. Land transport would have been difficult. Computer models have been generated that show how it would have walked but warn that it would not have been able to walk up – or presumably down – a hill. It is argued that its size would protect it against predators but how long would it take to simply turn around to bat off an agile predator? And forget about sex. A semi-aquatic lifestyle solves some of these problems but presents others. If an Argentinosaur were submerged, its body would be under almost forty feet of water putting pressure on its lungs hindering expansion. The same walking issues exist under water on soft beds with smallish feet. I don’t know what the geography of the area looked like but read that it was wetter and dotted with shallow lakes. Could the animal have been comfortable in both environments? If dinosaurs are your hobby or profession please chime in with answers and opinions.


If you are near Atlanta I encourage you to visit the Fernbank and spend an hour with this giant. It’s truly amazing to imagine the world outside teeming with these kinds of creatures

Go here to the University of Manchester to see a digital reconstruction of the lumbering giant.

Go here for a description of Dreadnoughtus in the journal Nature. Very similar and found in the same region.(http://www.nature.com/news/earth-shaking-dinosaur-discovered-1.15842)

See Argentinosaurus at Wiki here.

Collection of articles regarding questions about sauropod gigantism at PLOS.


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