Los Bastos, a paradise for paleontologists
The discovery of prehistoric remains near an ancient well has flagged the location for scientists. A study estimates that a gigantic dinosaur species, one previously unknown, lived there some 88 million years ago.
The Neuquen basin, known around the world as a site for unusual dinosaur remains was already ranked among the top five locations in terms of discoveries, when a worker from the Los Bastos deposit drew attention to a unique find in this area and in so doing, transformed the basin into a new paradise for paleontologists. In April 2017, a Tecpetrol employee was hiking through a canyon in a relatively unexplored area and spotted something among the rocks that caught his attention. In fact, he had already had cause to wonder about many "strange things" in the course of his fifteen years of work in terrain that had gradually become very familiar to him in the industry, but this, time he alerted the Provincial Cultural Heritage Department. A commission was swiftly set up, and a group of scientists picked their way over rocky terrain before taking a path through the wilderness to the site itself.
"What according to him were bones, for us were fossil strata: several bones embedded in the rock," explains Flavio Bellardini, as the paleontologist who received the initial alert and organized the expedition. The discovery occurred in the so-called Portezuelo Formation, well known for its abundant and diversified fossil record of vertebrates, not only of dinosaurs but also of reptiles and invertebrates, 88 million years old. However, given the particular features of the terrain, it is more common to find incomplete remains. "They used to find bone splinters of no scientific value, whereas this was a whole stratum containing several bones belonging to what looked like a very large dinosaur," concludes Bellardini, who heads up the team responsible for the study, published in Journal of South American Earth Sciences.
"The bones present a set of morphological characteristics that seem to refer to a titanosaur sauropod," reads the paper, the first produced by the Senillosa Natural Science Museum, which was created especially to preserve and display this find. Since the first discovery, some six expeditions have been organized, between 2017 and 2019, and Tecpetrol has been on the team. Jackhammers, picks and maces in the field seem a far remove from the stereotype of the paleontologist hunkered down on the ground, gently dabbing at the earth with a brush. "We did the dig, we pulled out several bones, and we also took the opportunity to explore the neighboring area, and found much more: within a two-kilometer radius we located ten sites featuring interesting bone remains," says Bellardini, who moved from Italy to Patagonia to fuel his passion for dinosaurs. "Now we have Los Bastos on the map as an important site." It is estimated that the size of the land with fossil potential measures some 60 square kilometers.
A museum for Senillosa
As the dig turned up more and more exciting results, concerns grew about the future of the enterprise. Initially, the remains of this four-legged sauropod dinosaur with a long neck and tail, familiarly known as the gigantosaurus, were transported to Neuquen. But the community of Senillosa started the paperwork to set up a new museum able to receive all the fossils in a building near the railway sidings.
In a short time, the space was too small for them. "These creatures were over 20 meters in length, weighing many tons, and the bones themselves are huge," explains Bellardini, trained and with a doctorate at the University of Comahue. "On our first expedition, we took them a one-and-a-half meter femur and a vertebra weighing over 200 kilos, and that pretty much filled the small museum to capacity," he details. The museum has an exhibition room and a preparation area (as they call the workshop where they carry out the work to release the bones from the rock), an office and their external premises where they used to receive guided tours. "The idea is to grow, and with Los Bastos only 20 kilometers down the road, that will be very easy," says Bellardini.
One of the offshoots of this series of events has been the close relationship that has sprung up between the workers in the area and the team of paleontologists who trained the former on how to spot fossil remains in the ground. This meant that the list of places to be investigated grew significantly. "When people get the extraordinary scientific value of this, something changes."
The importance of the find is not only due to the appearance of Los Bastos on the global paleontological map but also because of the high expectations surrounding the species discovered. "In this formation, in this paleontological era, we know of only two species of dinosaurs in the basin, and what we’ve found doesn’t match with either of them," Bellardini admits. "We’ll probably find ourselves with a new species that will be able to tell us more about these ecosystems from over 88 million years ago."