Fossil Friday: Italy’s largest discovery of dinosaurs is a herd of 11 specimens

Every once in a while, paleontologists make some breathtaking discoveries. Recently, it was the turn of Italian paleontologists to do so, and a new paper reports on the remarkable finding: a herd of 11 fossilized dinosaurs, including the largest and most complete such reptile to ever be discovered in the country.

The fossilized skeleton of ‘Bruno’. Image credits Alfio A. Chiarenza et al., (2021), Nature Scientific Reports.

Italy isn’t known as a hotbed of dinosaur fossils. There have been a handful of discoveries here, most of them in the last 30 years or so. By and large, however, Italian dinosaur hunters generally look to places outside of their motherland when searching for fossils.

But a new paper comes to show that there are still hidden paleontological gems to be found in Italy. The fossilized herd was unearthed at the Villaggio del Pescatore site, a protected area in Italy that has yielded dinosaur fossils in the past, as well.

An impressive haul

“Italy is not known for dinosaurs and, although we had a few lucky strikes in the past, now we have a whole herd at one dinosaur site,” said Federico Fanti, a professor at the University of Bologna and corresponding author of the paper describing the findings.

Villaggio del Pescatore is the site of a former limestone quarry close to the city of Trieste. Back in 1996, an almost complete dinosaur skeleton was unearthed here, initially believed to have belonged to a “dwarf species”, which paleontologists named “Antonio” at the time. However, the new discovery calls into question the assumption that it belonged to a dwarf species.

The freshly-discovered herd consists of 11 specimens of hadrosaurids of the species Tethyshadros insularis. These dinosaurs lived some 80 million years ago and could reach up to five meters (around 16 feet) in length. The herd includes the largest and most complete dinosaur skeleton ever recovered from Italy, an individual christened “Bruno”. Beyond how spectacular the find itself is, it also helped paleontologists better identify the species of Antonio.

Unlike previously believed, Antonio was not a dwarf dinosaur, but rather a juvenile — most likely a member of the same herd unearthed now.

Geology and geographic context of Villaggio del Pescatore (VdP). The star symbol marks the relative position in the paleogeography of the Tethys (c) where VdP most likely originated. Image credits Alfio A. Chiarenza et al., (2021), Nature Scientific Reports.

“Bruno is the biggest and oldest of the group, and the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in Italy,” said Fanti.

“We knew there were dinosaurs at the site after the discovery of Antonio, but up until now nobody actually checked to see how many. What we have now are multiple bones belonging to the same herd.”

Around the time these dinosaurs were alive, the site at Villaggio del Pescatore was very close to water, being on the shoreline of the ancient layout of the Mediterranean sea. The discovery of fish, crocodiles, flying reptiles, and small shrimp alongside the dinosaur herd provides further evidence of this.

“This is super cool as we can figure out the kind of environment the dinosaurs lived and died in,” added Fanti. “During that period, the area was very close to the shoreline in a tropical, warm and humid environment capable of feeding herds of dinosaurs.”

The site is still closed to the public, but paleontologists hope to make at least part of it open to visitation in the future. Until then, fossil aficionados can see some of the fossils recovered so far at the site at the Civic Museum of Natural History in Trieste.

The paper “An Italian dinosaur Lagerst├Ątte reveals the tempo and mode of hadrosauriform body size evolution” has been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

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