Attenborough And The Giant Dinosaur: The story of the discovery of the largest known dinosaur

On Sunday 24 January on BBC One, Sir David Attenborough will tell the story of the fossil discovery and reconstruction in Argentina of the largest known dinosaur, a new species of titanosaur. Measuring 37m long - close to four London buses put end to end - and weighing 70 metric tons, latest calculations show that this new giant titanosaur is the biggest animal ever to walk the earth.

Published: 12 January 2016

In 2013, a shepherd spotted the tip of a gigantic fossil bone sticking out of a rock in La Flecha Farm in the Chubut Province in the Argentinian desert. When the news reached palaeontologists at the Egidio Feruglio Paleontology Museum (MEF) in Trelew, Argentina, they set up camp at the discovery site. The first bone turned out to be a 2.4m long (femur) thigh bone, the largest ever found. By the end of the dig they had uncovered more than 220 bones. As the programme reveals, these fossils came from not just one dinosaur but seven, all belonging to a new species of the giant plant-eating titanosaur which is yet to be given its own scientific name.

Dr Diego Pol, lead scientist on the excavation based at the - Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio, Trelew, Argentina said: “It was like a paleontological crime scene, a unique thing that you don’t find anywhere else in the world with the potential of discovering all kinds of new facts about titanosaurs. According to our estimates this animal weighed 70 tons. A comparison of the back bones shows that this animal was 10 per cent larger than Argentinosaurus, the previous record holder. So we have discovered the largest dinosaur ever known."

Filmed over the next two years, Attenborough And The Giant Dinosaur follows the twists and turns of this forensic investigation. He witnesses the uncovering, cleaning and examination of these vast fossils for the first time. Using state-of-the-art graphics the film reveals what scientists think the internal structure of a dinosaur looked like and how it worked.

David Attenborough visits the dig site to witness the uncovering of these vast fossils, and the MEF labs in Trelew where they are cleaned and examined. He talks to the palaeontologists studying the fossils along with comparative anatomy experts, and looks at what the bones reveal about the lives of these dinosaurs with the help of 3D scanning, CGI visuals and animation. Finally, David witnesses the unveiling of a 37m-long skeleton model built by a Canadian and Argentinian team of model makers which represents the newly-discovered titanosaur.

David is joined by Dr Diego Pol, lead scientist on the excavation based at the MEF in Trelew and evolutionary biologist and bones expert Ben Garrod (Secret Of Bones).

Attenborough And The Giant Dinosaur will broadcast on BBC One on Sunday 24 January at 6.30pm.

Producer/Director: Charlotte Scott
Co-Executive Producers : Miles Barton and Mike Gunton

Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur is a BBC Earth production with PBS and THIRTEEN Productions LLC.

Ben Garrod - Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge UK
Dr Diego Pol - Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio, Trelew, Argentina
Dr José Luis Carballido - Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio, Trelew, Argentina
Prof. John Hutchinson - Royal Veterinary College, London, UK
Dr Luis Chiappe - Natural History Museum Los Angeles County, USA

Facts and Figures

  • Seven individual giant titanosaurs were found at La Flecha Farm in the Chubut Province of Argentina.
  • The Egidio Feruglio Paleontology Museum (MEF) in Trelew, Argentina, took on the task of investigating the find, spending just over two years digging out and researching the fossil bones.
  • They joined forces with a Canadian company to reconstruct a life sized skeleton in Argentina which Sir David Attenborough sees being completed at the end of the programme.
  • Giant titanosaurs are rare, so this find was exceptional in both the number of bones found - 223 in the one area - and the very good condition (state of preservation) they were found in. Some weighed over half a metric ton, so were hard to move from their remote location, which was more than three hours from the nearest town.
  • All of the bones belong to a new species. The name of this new species will be announced soon when the scientific paper is published.
  • The first bone found was a record-breaking femur (thigh) bone measuring 2.4m.
  • Analysis of the leg bones shows that these vast titanosaurs were young adults, in their prime but they were still growing. So we now know that a fully grown specimen would have been even bigger!
  • Evidence from the bones show that this was a new species of titanosaur.
  • The weight of the dinosaur was calculated two different ways, with the final estimate being 70 metric tons. It is estimated to be 10 percent bigger than Argentinosaurus, the current record holder in terms of body mass or weight. This dinosaur is able to be much more accurately measured than Argentinosaurus ever could, as only a dozen of its bones were ever found. The latest calculations show that this new giant titanosaur is the biggest animal ever to walk the earth. The blue whale is heavier but not comparable as it lives in the sea.
  • It measures 37m long, close to four London buses put end to end! For comparison ‘Dippy’ the Diplodocus at the Natural History Museum, London is 26m long.
  • The neck would probably been held roughly horizontal for most of the time, but they could have fed from the ground or reached upwards for food to around 14 m in height. Giraffes, the tallest animal around today, can in comparison can reach 4-5.5m in height.
  • Its heart would have been the weight of three people and nearly 2m (6ft) in circumference. It would have pushed up to 90 litres of blood round with one beat.
  • The titanosaur would have eaten the equivalent of a skip-full of food a day, using its huge gut to slowly digest its plant-based diet.
  • It was longer than a blue whale but not as heavy. (Blue whales don’t have to cope with walking on land).
  • The great thing about the giant titanosaur is that they found so many bones, 223 compared to many other big dinosaurs like Argentinosaurus which only had a dozen bones to go on. This allows the scientists to gauge our animal’s size much more accurately to 70 metric tons. Dreadnaughtus, another large titanosaur with quite a few bones, is now estimated to be 30-40 metric tons in weight, so is much smaller.
  • 80 carnivore teeth were also found at the same site.
  • The dinosaurs were from the cretaceous Period 66 - 145 million years ago; a time when large dinosaurs dominated South America. We date our titanosaurs more precisely in the programme to 101.6 million years old.