Wed. Jan 29th, 2020

Welcome to Patagonia, the world dinosaur factory | Science

A Martian landscape. A reddish desert of mountains and plateaus next to a lake that vanishes on the horizon. Dinosaurs Remains of them everywhere. Fossils of all types of life that existed on Earth millions of years ago. A complete petrified ecosystem.

On the road to that past they cross, swift, foxes and Ñnúes. They watch over the travelers the pagan saints in improvised altars of sticks and stones full of offerings and spit fire in the middle of nowhere the imposing gas and oil plants. At times, it looks like the landscape of the movie Mad max. This is what the Lake Los Barreales area, in Neuquen -Patagonia Argentina- a province on the border with Chile, more than 980 kilometers from the city of Buenos Aires. The likeness Cinematic makes sense when considering that 100 million years ago Argentina and Namibia (scene of the film) were part of the same continent.

Traces of the past appear at every step in the region that holds the largest paleontological collection in South America. There is a window to the Cretaceous past that can be visited all year round although it is recommended to do so during the Argentine summer – January and February – when the warm southern climate favors outdoor tourism. That window is called Dino project, 90 kilometers from the homonymous capital of Neuquén. A scientific camp open to the public with public and private funds (National University of Comahue and oil companies) who just lifted his blinds after five years of closing by inconveniences with the indigenous community and financing. Here more than thirty new types of dinosaurs have been found, with 1,500 pieces of vertebrate fossils and more than 400 remains of vegetables between 90 and 100 million years old. And they still meet. "This is a dinosaur factory," ironifies its histrionic director, geologist and paleontologist Jorge Calvo.

Here more than thirty new types of dinosaurs have been found, with 1,500 pieces of vertebrate fossils and more than 400 remains of vegetables between 90 and 100 million years old. And they still meet

The geological and geographical conditions of Patagonia facilitate the innumerable findings, among which two of the largest species in the history of planet Earth stand out: the carnivorous hunter Giganotosaurus Carolini (between twelve and thirteen meters long and almost seven tons) and the herbivore Futalognkosaurus Dukei (about thirty-four meters and up to fifty tons). The first lived 97 million years ago and exceeds the popular size Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was found in 1993 in a town a few kilometers away, called El Chocón, by Rubén Carolini, a paleontology mechanic who, like all the locals, worked at the state hydroelectric plant. Once privatized – in 1992 – it pushed hundreds of workers into unemployment, forcing the community to reinvent itself. It went from having 5,000 inhabitants in the seventies to less than fifty the year the company closed, according to the official census.

The following year it was released Jurassic Park and, although it still does not reach 1,000 residents today, the feeling of the locals is that dinosaurs saved the town. “There the population grew again. The bones were in a club room until the renovation began El Chocón museum which is the old mechanical workshop of Hidronor where Carolini worked. That is the story of the beginning of paleontology in this area. There the town resurfaced ”, summarizes Calvo based in the province since 1987 and witnessing the metamorphosis. Since then, all the peoples of the region yearn for their paleontological museum. There are already five with important samples and three emerging. In no time there will be 1 every 28,000 inhabitants. All about dinosaurs. "It's full," sums up the scientist.

Who actually found the Giganoto She was a peasant, but the one who kept the name and the Indiana Jones statue was the mechanic. "She found the fossil guarding a goat that escaped her, went looking for her walking and found him." From there began the chain of alerts that ended up in the role of Carolini for having been the one who informed the National University of Comahue. Thanks to them, it was learned that the world's largest carnivore was a superpredator capable of eating immense herbivores that tripled in size. That was due not so much to his ferocity as to his opportunism: the sauropods – long-necked herbivores – were very slow. He Giganoto, with a skull almost two meters long and with the femur longer than the tibia, it didn't get much speed either. So no matter how threatening he looked, a small and bold reptile could avoid it without problems.

More fearsome was the Megagaraptor, a fiercer relative although less known than the protagonist of Jurassic Park. The fundamental difference lies in the way to get their prey. According to Calvo, the first was a hunter and the second, a scavenger, although the latter is still a matter of controversy. Surely they were both tyrants. They should share a prefix, but the initial hypothesis about the location of the first claw found assigned to the Giganoto to a family that did not belong. “The paleontologist who found it saw that it was similar to that of the Velociraptor from Jurassic Park and placed it on the foot. He said 'this is Mega-raptor'because it was bigger, but here in the excavation of Futalognkosaurus We found the same claw associated with the hand. Complete, articulated. Then we discovered that the Megagaraptor He had no claw on his foot but on his hand, so he could no longer be a raptor. Then a skull was discovered and we knew it was a relative of the Tyrannosaur Rex that he used his arms because it was the deadliest weapon he had. The name cannot be changed, it remains, but the reality is that it is not a raptor but a new species of Tyrannosaur”, Clarifies Calvo. The finding of the almost complete skeleton with the skull included, in 2003, was an unprecedented fact in the study of that species. "Megagaraptor it was because it had a large and sharp claw, which reached up to 50 centimeters adding the bones and the case, ”explains the paleontologist convinced that this animal, up to eight meters long, killed its prey by tearing them apart.

The second jewel of the camp is the Futalognkosaurus Dukei, found in 2007. It is one of the largest herbivores on the planet that lived about 90 million years ago. It was between 34 and 36 meters long, weighed about 80 tons (the equivalent of the sum of 40 elephants) and had the largest hip in the world until now known, 2.55 meters wide. Its colossal skeleton is also one of the most complete in the world, with 70% of the rescued pieces. Calvo recounts his finding as if it were Sherlock Holmes. "It's like the job of a forensic expert, the question is who killed him and why." Those are the intrigues with which the paleontologist holds the attention on the tour. With that hook he invites tourists to lay hands on the earth in a fertile grid in which, he says, some visitors have found fossils. If that is the experience you are looking for, tourists they can stay in one of the rolling boxes of the Dino Project camp for between 100 and 300 dollars per person (about 90 to 270 euros) and feel paleontologists for a few days. Guided by professionals, tour the areas of the findings, participate in excavations, are allowed to prepare fossils and visit the laboratory. They sleep they work and they eat like the young scientists who reside there, far from any hotel comfort.

Footprints, eggs and 'dragons'

The excavations of Futalognko They opened the portal to the Cretaceous. The geologist and paleontologist who has been working there for 20 years is still amazed. “When we started to take out the dinosaur we saw the plants, the fish, the crocodiles, the turtles, the eggshells. It was an ecosystem. It is unique in the world. Finding a fossil ecosystem is very rare. ” Everything seems extraordinary in Neuquén geology. “Last year we named a flying reptile. Argentinadraco It's called, which means Argentine dragon. You discover things all the time. New species permanently because everything is there. There are the plants, the preserved leaves, geodas. We have a family of 5 crocodiles together. They have probably died buried in a flood of water, type Pompeii or an avalanche. They are exceptional cases of group deaths. ”

Dinosaurs up in the wine

Where fossils are excavated in Neuquén. This is what happened in 2001 to the Schroeder Family Winery when they began to prepare the foundations for their cellars in San Patricio del Chañar, 44 kilometers from the city of Neuquén. He Panamericansaurus Schroederi He lived 75 million years ago. It was herbivorous, weighed about 16 tons, was about 6 meters high and between 10 and 12 long. His remains are exposed in the basement of the company that can be known on the guided tour, before culminating with the wine tasting. The area of ​​the vineyards is located between Lake Los Barreales and the city of Neuquén, so it can be included without problems in the itinerary. Infinity of poplars adorn the lateral limits of the route that connects both points and on which hundreds of plantations of pears and apples typical of that part of the High valley. It is the pre-oil landscape, which dominated almost the entire region before the fury of the fracking of which farmers complain. For now, there are also abundant organic and experimental vineyards as well as prestigious wineries Del Fin del Mundo, Patagonian Secret or Malma.

More frequent, according to experts, are the footprints. Seeing them closely, however, causes an atypical fascination. They seem fresh, as if the animal had fled minutes before. They look so crisp that tourists tend to believe they are fake. Bald clears why they are not. “This was an area of ​​lagoons where the animal was going to drink water and left the mark in the clay mud. The footprint dries with the sun and hardens. When there is flood, the water does not break it, the cover with sediment and is preserved. If it is a slow flood, it does not erode it. Above the tracks were 1,000 meters of rock covering them. Those 1,000 meters disappeared, eroded and were visible. ” Those in the area of ​​Lake Los Barreales were discovered in 1991 and date to some 100 million years. For the characteristic 3 fingers and their large size, they are believed to be of Megagaraptor. “The footprint speaks of the life that the animal had. How he walked, how he moved, if it was a persecution, if he went to the water. The bone tells you what kind of dinosaur it was. Nothing else. How he lived, what he was doing there, the footprints say, ”explains the scientist. There are also herbivore footprints that can be seen 'in negative', protruding below the rock cut. The paleontologist stands under them to understand what is being seen. “You see the silhouette of the footprint on the rock. They are herbivores. They do not leave footprints in detail like carnivores. They leave wells, like an elephant. ”

A few steps, original remains of eggshells (5 millimeters thick) that belonged to a Pterosaur, an ancestor of birds. In the area a kind of solidarity raising was practiced. “The first mother laid the nest and then they all went to the same place. Nesting centers were created and they all looked after the eggs because if they were isolated, they could not see them and they could step on them. They were animals that had their heads 10 meters high. Besides, they supposedly had no reasoning, we don't know, ”Calvo doubts, ready to be surprised by scientific progress.

The reddish and arid landscape of Proyecto Dino seems Martian.

The reddish and arid landscape of Proyecto Dino seems Martian.

The Dead Cow Gas

22 kilometers from Proyecto Dino is Añelo, lto Latin American capital of fracking (hydraulic fracturing). The Dino Project circuit also includes the Argentine hen of the golden eggs. A furor of prehistoric origin. “Everyone talks about Dead cow, but nobody knows what it is, ”says Calvo standing next to a geological scale. At 7,000 meters under his feet is Vaca Muerta; the second most important gas field in the world and the fourth in oil. As a geologist, he also instructs on the origin of that fossil fuel. “The sea entered the Neuquén basin, deposited the sediment, algae and microorganisms and transformed everything into protopeleo. It's called mother rock and it's the origin of oil. ” Due to the pressure it comes out through the pores and cracks and goes up to higher formations, 2000 meters away, from where the oil companies extract it. Bald collects a small glass bottle with an ocher liquid. Uncover it and bring it closer to tourists so they can feel the unmistakable smell of fuel. "This oil is from here," he presents. 'Black gold' is not always black. “It can be a different color, even transparent. The darker, the richer it is because the more derivative byproducts you have. The clearer, more distilled, the less things can be done, ”he distinguishes.

The oil in the upper layers is over. With the fracking they try squeeze The mother rock. “They put lines where they destroy the rock and bombard it with water and sand under a lot of pressure. Thus, the oil begins to be injected into the other wells to bring it to the surface, ”says Calvo who dismisses the environmental damage. “It is 2,600 meters. There is no drinking water there. The one used to extract oil is minimal, cities use more. This water is used again in other wells and when it no longer works, it is inside and sealed. ” But the energetic splendor is not yet felt in the cities or towns of Neuquén. With the distressing experience of the hydroelectric, the community distrusts the extractive industries. They fear that dinosaurs cannot always save them. Calvo recognizes it despite having counted from the beginning with the contribution of the oil companies for their paleontological projects. “Neuquén should be like Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, but here the oil leaves nothing. It seems that everything is going to Buenos Aires. Nothing comes to science. When all the oil and gas are over, they will remember the dinosaurs and it will be late. ”

What to see in the 8 dinosaur museums of Neuquén

  • Ernesto Bachmann Municipal Museum from El Chocón. The largest carnivore in the world and the history of its mentor, mechanic Rubén Carolini.
  • Carmen Funes Municipal Museum in Plaza Huincul. Original pieces of the herbivorous giant Argentinosaurus Huinculensis and the local history of oil exploitation.
  • Provincial Museum of Natural Sciences Professor Juan A. Olsacher, in Zapala. The oldest dinosaur in Neuquén. A bird in which seeds were preserved that he ate shortly before he died. The museum also has the most important mineralogical collection in the country.
  • Argentinian Municipal Paleontological Museum Urquiza, in Rincon de los Sauces. They have the most complete Titanosaur fossil in the world so far and more than 400 pieces of other dinosaurs.
  • Municipal Museum of Natural Sciences of Senillosa. Fossils of small lizards, turtles, crocodiles and archaeological finds. Address: Olascoaga and Avenida San Martín 320 Senillosa
  • Picún Leufú Municipal Museum. Footprints belonging to ornitisquios, saurisquios, sauropods and theropods. Some, unique in the world.
  • Las Lajas Municipal Museum. It opened in March 2019. It specializes in caving, the study of caves since there are many that can be visited in that area. They will also 'repatriate' dinosaur fossils that until now are found in the Huincul Square Museum. Address: Saavedra 474, Las Lajas.
  • Museum of Geology and Paleontology of the National University of Comahue – Dino project in Lake Los Barreales. It is the largest deposit in South America. They have the largest carnivore in the world and one of the largest herbivores. One of the few 'windows to the past' in the world that allow to know the entire Cretaceous ecosystem. The tour lasts about three hours. Recommendations: Contact before going to check the opening and opening hours, rent a vehicle, bring some supplies and GPS. Some are far away, with few stores to get supplies.

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