National Geographic : 1997 Dec
INC6N DE LOS SAUCES, Argentina, has lost its dinosaur, and the deserted streets seem sorry and bereft. The gritty little oil town squats on the northern frontier of Patagonia, pun ished by an incessant wind hauling dust in from the badlands. It is midafternoon when I arrive, la siesta. The sun is so piercingly bright it seems almost audible. The only inhabitants I see outside are dogs-loitering in the shade of a parked car or crossing a silent street with no great haste and crossing back again with even less. It doesn't look like the sort of place where exciting things happen. Nor does it seem like a good spot to locate a Holiday Inn. Yet there it sits on the very edge of town, brand new, looking like a giant plastic toy that someone has dropped onto the desert from a passing airplane. I get an even bigger surprise when I check in at the front desk. "Ah," says Charlie, the young concierge. "You have come for el dinosaurio. But they have already taken it away." Dinosaur? What dinosaur? I have traveled to this part of the world to find out more about its dinosaurs, but Rinc6n is just a stop on my way to somewhere else. I press Charlie for more details, but all she knows is that a local man found a dino saur skeleton while riding in the badlands on his dirt bike. Two weeks ago some scientists came and took it away. It is fitting that my first foray into Patagonian paleontology should begin with a mystery. Pa tagonia-the remote, astringently beautiful expanse of steppe and stone that covers the southern part of Argentina-is the true lost world of the dinosaurs. Our con ventional sense of the great crea tures is based almost entirely on bones found in North America and Asia well-known characters such as Triceratops, Velociraptor,and, of course, Tyrannosaurusrex. Dinosaurs flourished in the Southern Hemi sphere too, but during much of their reign oceans separated the supercontinents of Lau rasia in the north and Gondwana in the south. UNCOVERING PATAGONIA'S LOST WORLD Isolated from their northern counterparts, dinosaurs down here followed their own evo lutionary course beginning in the Jurassic, 180 million years ago. Patagonia contains the rich est potential source of dinosaur information in the entire southern half of the planet. Even so, many researchers considered its dinosaurs mere aberrations: curious creatures, perhaps, but of little use in understanding the evolution of the dinosaurian mainstream. Now that view is changing. "What we know of the dinosaur world is a very small portion of the complete story," says Jose Bonaparte, chief of vertebrate paleon tology at the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences in Buenos Aires. Until recently a lot of what we did know of the Patagonian part of the story was due to Bonaparte and his stu dents. Now those students have come of age, and they are finding new species faster than they can get them out of the ground. Already they have what may be the largest predator ever to prowl the earth-and the most birdlike dinosaur too. And the fun is just beginning. "This is my baby," says Coria, cradling a juve nile Gasparinisaura skull. It suggests that 70 million years ago such two-legged, plant eating dinosaurs survived in South America after close relatives elsewhere had died out. Similar finds let the El Choc6n area bill itself as the Valley of the Dinosaurs.