Friday, July 16, 2004

Here There Be Dragons

RIODEVA, Spain - Farmers here have cleared stones from their almond orchards for generations, never dreaming they were tossing aside dinosaur bones -- and laying a trail for one of Spain's greatest fossil finds. But when two palaeontologists stumbled across a field scattered with the fragments they knew they had probably found a valuable cache, and when digging began in early 2003 it revealed a horde beyond their wildest hopes.

The remains of the largest dinosaur found in Europe, including an upper limb bone as big as a person -- 5.8 feet -- were nestling just below the surface in this remote corner of the central Spanish region of Aragon. The huge reptile, which weighed an estimated 40 to 50 tonnes, the same as six or seven elephants, probably roamed the region up to 130 million years ago when it was a tropical "dinosaur paradise," criss-crossed with rivers and streams.

Huge, perfectly preserved toe bone fossils and even a single curved nail, larger than a human hand, were found with a rib and leg and possibly pelvic bones. The herbivore's bones were jumbled with remains from other, smaller animals -- including teeth from carnivores that may have feasted on its flesh.

Up to 114-feet long, the dinosaur could represent a new species, although the team uncovering it is wary of jumping to conclusions -- but its size alone is enough to put Riodeva firmly on the map. The largest known dinosaurs have been found in Latin America and the new Spanish dinosaur claims the record for Europe.

The province of Teruel, where Riodeva is located, was already well known to Spanish dinosaur lovers. Its hills, dramatically layered with red and white striped layers of rock, are a treasure trove for fossil-hunters. They yielded Spain's first dinosaur in 1872, and then just over a century later the first new species was discovered in the country, Aragosaurus.

But the latest find is the most exciting yet -- and its discoverers hope it will boost interest and funds, partly through raising the profile of Teruel's dinosaur theme park, Dinopolis. The park seems to be succeeding in helping boost Teruel's economy by capitalizing on the region's unusual assets. Hotel capacity in the town is expected to climb 70 percent by 2006, five years after the park opened, and it has attracted 500,000 visitors, at 17 euros ($21) an adult ticket, over three years.

The laboratory where the team take their fossils for painstaking cleaning -- restoring a single bone can take months -- is a key part of the Dinopolis complex, with a glass wall so visitors can watch the experts at work. As well as an attraction, it is a reminder that the park's future depends on these paleontologists' devotion, as their finds help drum up the publicity that keeps visitors coming.

Teruel Palaeontology Foundation Director Luis Alcala says he has no problems recruiting new staff and has identified nearly 20 other sites that could hold remains. But the latest giant discovery is likely to keep them busy for a while. Alacala says cheerfully they could still be combing the field where they found it, millimeter by slow millimeter, in 20 years' time.

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