December 20, 2018


Titanosaur: Discovering the World’s Largest Dinosaur. By José Luis Carballido, Ph.D., and Diego Pol, Ph.D. Illustrated by Florencia Gigena. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.

     An extraordinary adventure packed into an extraordinary book that will intrigue and charm young readers and adults alike, Titanosaur provides an amazingly detailed look at the discovery in Patagonia, in the far south of Argentina, of the bones of the largest dinosaur ever found to date. And it is written by the men who led the team that uncovered and preserved the dinosaur fossil and transported it to a museum for investigation and eventual copying that allowed display of a full-scale model of the animal.

     The scale is amazing: this titanosaur – one of the super-heavy, long-necked dinosaurs familiar from species such as Diplodocus and Apatosaurus – turned out to be 122 feet long and 26½ feet tall. And it all started with a gaucho and his dog, searching for a lost sheep and discovering something huge and strange poking out of the ground.

     José Luis Carballido and Diego Pol tell the story of this discovery in a way that is both matter-of-fact and fascinating. The upper parts of the pages detail what happened, with illustrations by Florencia Gigena giving an idea of scenes that were not captured by cameras – the original discovery of the first bone, for example. Then, on the sides and lower parts of the pages, Carballido and Pol explain the background of what is going on and include, when available, photos showing the actual work that went into uncovering, removing and eventually assembling the titanosaur fossil. One page, for example, shows an illustration of members of the team of scientists at work in the area where the bones were found. It also shows actual photos of team members and some of the equipment they used – with the explanation that while “paleontologists use power tools such as jackhammers and rock saws, as well as shovels and wheelbarrows to remove all the rocks” surrounding specimens, the fossils themselves are actually quite delicate and must be carefully extracted using “much smaller and more delicate tools, such as dental picks, awls, and brushes, because the bones are so fragile.” This is the sort of matter-of-fact but fascinating comment found throughout Titanosaur, likely to interest young readers and surprise adults who may have thought that fossils – which are, after all, rocks – can simply be pulled out of the ground by heavy equipment.

     Readers will share some of these experienced scientists’ sense of wonder at this particular find. One page has Pol asking Carballido why it took 10 days to dig up a single bone – the first one discovered. “Come and see for yourself!” says the text, and the expressions of joy and amazement on both paleontologists’ faces (in Gigena’s illustration) may well mirror those on the faces of readers. As the book continues, illustrations show the 20-person team at work – and photos show team members gathered at the site. Illustrations show where the bones were located at the dig – and explanatory material discusses how much scientists can learn from individual discoveries. There is, for example, a simple explanation of the way scientists estimate the weight of an extinct animal by measuring the thickness of its leg bones and employing known measurements of modern weight-bearing animals that walk in a similar way – for example, on all fours – to figure out how much weight a bone of a specific size could support. For another example, there is information on how much scientists can learn from a single fossil tooth about an extinct animal’s diet. And within that explanation is the fascinating fact that because “teeth are much harder and stronger than skull bones,” they are preserved as fossils fairly often, while head bones are not: “Even though over seventy species of titanosaur have been discovered, only four skulls have ever been found.”

     Titanosaur takes readers on a step-by-step trip from the fortuitous discovery of a fossil bone, through the complexity of removing and preserving that bone and the many others found in the same area, to the museum where all the bones – some 180 of them – had to be carefully cleaned, cared for, and scanned with high-tech equipment so accurate models of all bones could be made without harming the fossils themselves. The time it took for all this is notable – 14 months – and worth discussing with young readers who may be inspired by Carballido and Pol to become paleontologists themselves. Discoveries like this one occur regularly but not frequently, and the painstaking work of extracting the fossils and uncovering their secrets requires dedication, knowledge, appropriate equipment, and a great deal of time. The results can be remarkable both in knowledge gained and in the experience that scientists are able to share with the public: Titanosaur includes a wonderful two-page-wide photo of the enormous, fully assembled model of the dinosaur being welded onto a stand in a gigantic warehouse, and it also includes – inside the book jacket – a poster showing what this dinosaur may have looked like when it lived 100 million years ago. The book is educational and exciting at the same time – an absolutely wonderful combination.

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