In the venerated halls of London’s Natural History Museum, one of the largest animals ever to walk the Earth is about to make its debut.
Patagotitan mayorum, a dinosaur giant belonging to a group known as titanosaurs, is visiting Europe for the first time since its discovery in Argentina in 2010. Over five meters (16 feet) tall and weighing over two and a half metric tons, its skeleton will give visitors an idea of what this gentle giant, which could have weighed as much as 57 metric tons and stretched over 120 feet, would have looked like when it lived on Earth around 100 million years ago.
A team of technicians is putting the finishing touches to the star exhibit, which arrived in the UK in January and has been reconstructed in a room with a specially reinforced floor, said Sinead Marron, exhibition and interpretation manager at the museum.
Displayed alongside the skeleton, which is a cast, are real fossils, including a 2.4-meter-long (8 feet) femur that weighs around half a metric ton.
“The idea of the exhibition has been in the works for a few years now,” said Marron, explaining that it was disrupted by the Covid pandemic. “We’re so excited to finally introduce Patagotitan to the UK.”
Bring up the bodies
When Patagotitan mayorum was first excavated, it rocked the world of palaeontology. More than nine times heavier than the African elephant and longer than a blue whale, the giant herbivore may have been the largest terrestrial animal of all time.
The first evidence of the Patagotitan emerged in 2010 with the discovery of a single bone, before a more extensive dig in 2013 yielded more than 180 bones from seven partial skeletons. Evidence suggests the dinosaurs were buried in floods.
The fossils were 3-D scanned and used by the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio (MEF) in Argentina as the basis of a whole skeleton cast comprising nearly 300 bones. The cast comprises a shell of fiberglass and polyester resin, filled with expanding foam, displayed on a steel framework.
“The replica is a composite – it incorporates bones from at least six different individuals found at the site,” explained Marron. “For the bones that weren’t found, the specialist team at MEF have filled in the gaps using what we know from closely related dinosaurs.”
Replicas of Patagotitan mayorum reside in the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, but the dinosaur hadn’t been exhibited in Europe before the Natural History Museum took loan of the MEF’s cast.
Packing up in Patagonia
A specialist department of freight company IAG Cargo was tasked with transporting the dinosaur from Argentina.
CEO David Shepherd told CNN the department has transported items including terracotta soldiers, Egyptian mummies and Assyrian treasures to the UK, which, due to their value and delicate nature, means staff and customers go through strict screening requirements to ensure items’ safety. “Cargo is stored in state-of-the-art vaults that are constantly monitored using CCTV and active human surveillance,” he said.
The cast and fossils were stored in more than 40 specially designed crates. These were placed in the belly hold of two British Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliners and flown 7,000 miles from Ezeiza Airport, Buenos Aires, to London Heathrow, before they were taken to a special facility ahead of transportation to the museum.
“The fossils are significantly heavier than the replicas which makes storing, moving and displaying them more complicated than for the replicas,” said Marron. “In addition, the original fossils are of immense value to scientific research.”
“For this move, every single bone required a temporary export permit for paleontological heritage,” Shepherd explained. “This is very similar to a passport and includes details such as the name and code of the collection, its weight, size and a photograph, as well as insurance and a visa-like document, giving it permission to be out of the country for a specified time.”
Clearing customs and security checks took four days, he added.
Assembly inside the museum’s Waterhouse Gallery has happened away from the public eye. “There was a lot of measurement-checking to ensure that we could actually get the specimens into our Victorian, grade II listed building,” said Marron.
The official unveiling on Friday March 31 is timed to coincide with the start of UK school holidays, and huge crowds are expected.
“We hope visitors will experience a sense of awe at the sheer scale of the titanosaur. It’s an incredible experience to stand underneath it, to be dwarfed by this immense creature,” said Marron.
But with the new addition, has the museum considered Dippy’s feelings? The beloved diplodocus skeleton, until 2015 a stalwart of the museum and currently on tour in the UK, is not in London to defend its patch.
The two dinosaurs won’t be having a meeting of minds, however “we’re pretty sure Dippy is excited that a big cousin has come to visit,” Marron said.