Named after the Atlas Mountains of Morocco where its fossil remains were discovered, Atlasaurus lived during the mid-Jurassic period, around 168-165 million years ago. While it wasn’t the strangest–lookingsauropod by any means, compared to other species its body proportions still show a particularly bizarre combination of features, with a slightly bigger head, unusually short neck, and very long slender legs that made up nearly half of its 9m height (29’6″).
It’s sort of the uncanny valley of sauropods. Everything about it is just a tiny bit wrong.
Its tall shoulders and sloping back resemble the body plan of brachiosaurids so closely that it was initially thought to be an early member of that group, but more recent studies suggest it may have been part of an earlier evolutionary branch of sauropods known as the turiasaurs – which would mean its brachiosaur-like shape was actually the result of convergent evolution.
But what was it doing with such weird proportions?
…We really don’t know. Other short-necked sauropods seem to have been adapted for feeding on lower vegetation only a couple of meters off the ground, but Atlasaurus’ leggy build would have made it a high browser like the brachiosaurids it was mimicking. Its long legs may also have allowed it to move faster, or given it some advantage navigating over rough terrain, but since no other sauropod ever seemed to evolve this way it must have been doing something particularly unique.
Or perhaps it was just an evolutionary fluke. Maybe part of a lineage that had started adapting to short-necked low browsing, then moved back towards the high browsing niche – and happened to end up lengthening their legs instead of their necks to get the necessary height back.
Originating from Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, the word “kaiju” is now often used to refer to giant creatures in general – and so it was only a matter of time before a huge sauropod dinosaur was named after the concept.
Kaijutitan maui* was a titanosaur living in Argentina during the Late Cretaceous, about 89-86 million years ago. It’s only known from fragmentary remains, so its full size is difficult to estimate, but it was probably somewhere in the region of 20m long (66′). Nowhere close to the largestsauropod, but possibly one of the heaviest since it does seem to have been rather chunkily built, with stout limbs and an estimated weight of 40-60 tonnes (44-66 US tons).
* Not named for the Polynesian hero, apparently, but for the initials of the Museo Argentino Urquiza.
At the very end of the Cretaceous period, between about 72 and 66 million years ago, tectonic uplift from the start of the formation of the Alps created an island in the area corresponding to modern-day Romania.
Known as Hațeg Island, after the region where fossils of the native species were found, it was similar in size to Hispaniola and was surrounded by deeper waters than most of the other European archipelago islands.
Magyarosaurus here was was a titanosaur living on this island, and was one of the smallest known of all sauropod dinosaurs at just 6m long (19’8″). Much of that length would have been in its neck and tail, and its body was only actually about the size of a horse.
Like some other titanosaurs it had bony osteoderm armor along its back, although since only one isolated piece has been found the exact arrangement isn’t known.
A layer of rock just above the deposit of Europasaurus fossils also gives us a clue about their eventual fate. Footprints of large carnivorous theropods – bigger than the mini-sauropods themselves – suggest that at some point the sea level dropped and predators from the mainland were able to reach the island.
Since there were no large predators on the island before then,the small Europasaurus had no defenses against these new giant invaders. They very likely were literally eaten into extinction.
Islands are natural sites for evolutionary experiments. Their isolation and limited resources put a lot of selective pressure on their native species, often resulting in spectacular and unique adaptations. Big animals become small, small animals become big, and ecological niches can end up being filled in unexpected ways.
From the dodo becoming the first well-known example of human-caused extinction, to Darwin’s Galápagos finches being influential in the development of the theory of natural selection, to famous-but-endangered living examples like the kiwi and marine iguana, island species are fascinating and often fragile examples of how diverse life can get even in restricted conditions.
In fact, this theme ended up containing so many species I wanted to feature that I can’t possibly fit them all into just a single month. So, for the first time, a theme is going to need two months – with part 1 happening right now, and part 2 coming later this summer.
For much of the Mesozoic Europe was an archipelago of islands in a shallow tropical sea. During the Late Triassic, about 205-201 million years ago, some of the paleo-islands in this region existed around southern Wales and South West England, near the city of Bristol.
Thecodontosaurus was actually one of the first non-avian dinosaurs ever named by modern science, discovered in the mid 1830s – several years before the term “dinosaur” was even created to classify the “great ancient lizards”.
It was an early member of the herbivorous sauropodomorphs, the group that would eventually include the largest ever land animals. But unlike its enormous later cousins it was short-necked and bipedal, and was particularly small compared to other contemporary “prosauropods”, measuring only about 2m long (6′6″). This would make it one of the oldest known examples of insular dwarfism.
Zby atlanticus, a sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of Portugal (~156-151 mya). While its genus name might look like a keyboard smash, it was actually named after the Russian-French paleontologist Georges Zbyszewski, who spent much of his career studying Portuguese fossils.
It was a close relative of Turiasaurus, the largest dinosaur currently known from Europe – and although Zby itself wasn’t quite so enormous it was still pretty big, probably measuring somewhere around 15-19m long (49′2″-62′4″).
In fact, all the sauropods known from Late Jurassic Portugal seem to have grown to very large adult sizes. The complete lack of medium or small forms suggests that other types of herbivorous dinosaurs may have dominated the region’s lower-browsing niches at the time.