- Associated Press - Saturday, August 8, 2015

SOMERSET, Pa. (AP) - As a child, Chris Coughenour would sneak onto a strip mine a few hundred yards from his parents’ property in Brothersvalley Township to collect rocks and fossilized ferns.

He still has boxes filled with his discoveries, some estimated to be 300 million years old.

“Honestly, if I would have grown up somewhere else, I don’t know that I would have had that interest, at least in geology,” Coughenour, 34, said. “That kind of planted the seed for me.”

That seed sprouted in 2005 with one of the biggest discoveries - quite literally - in the history of paleontology.

In 2005 Coughenour was a first-year graduate student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His adviser, paleontology professor Kenneth Lacovara, invited him on an expedition to Patagonia, a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America that is shared by Argentina and Chile. The region is sometimes referred to as the “Land of the Giants” or the “Land of the Big Feet” because of 18th-century accounts of mariners encountering a race of 12-foot giants there.



Coughenour, then 23, Lacovara, a representative from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and several Argentinians set up camp on a rocky slope. The camp was several hours from the nearest town. The weather was highly variable, with temperatures rising to 85 degrees in full sun and then plummeting 25 degrees under cloud cover. The previous year a dinosaur femur was discovered about a half-mile away.

On the first day of the expedition Coughenour found a piece of “float,” a term used to describe a fossil or artifact that is not associated with a larger specimen.

“I found what looked to be a piece of a humerus or an arm bone just sticking out of the outcrop,” he said. “It was probably about 2 feet long or so.”

The discovery was perhaps the most promising of the day until the Argentinians summoned the other team members to another section of the site.

“The bone was actually exposed there. They had kind of picked around the surface,” he said. “We had no idea, of course, how big it was or what it was. It was mostly still buried. We just saw a little bit of bone.”

The bone was on a small hill, so the team was fairly certain that it was not another piece of float that had washed down from a higher elevation.

“We focused our efforts there for the rest of that day,” Coughenour said. “By the end of the day we had pretty much outlined the femur. As they excavated around it, taking away the matrix, which is just the rock it is encased in, it just kept getting bigger and bigger. It just kept going and going. And finally it ended up being about 6 feet long.”

Although the entire fossil, and a smaller specimen, wouldn’t be unearthed for three more years, the team had discovered a new supermassive dinosaur species and one of the largest animals ever to walk the face of the earth.

The dinosaur - which was dubbed “Dreadnoughtus schrani” after the early 20th-century battleships and financial supporter Adam Schran - was 85 feet long, stood 2 1/2 stories at its shoulders and weighed 65 tons, according to Lacovara. Its neck was 37 feet long, yet its skull, which was never discovered, was roughly the size of a horse’s head.

“When these animals died, their heads just basically popped off,” Lacovara said.

The gigantic plant eater probably spent much of its time anchored in one spot, using its giraffe-like neck to consume tens of thousands of calories from the surrounding vegetation, he said. Because of the dinosaur’s size, it had little to fear. The name Dreadnoughtus, in fact, means “fear nothing.”

Lacovara believes that the dinosaur died as a result of a storm that caused a river to break through a levee, turning the ground into something resembling quicksand.

“It got mired in this crevasse splay and sank down quickly,” he said. “That’s what accounts for this great preservation. It made the transition from the biosphere to the geosphere very quickly.”

Not only was the fossil incredibly large and well-preserved, it was also exceptionally complete. The team found about 45 percent of the dinosaur’s skeleton and roughly 70 percent of the types of bones in its body. The skeleton is more complete than that of any other supermassive dinosaur.

“We never anticipated finding anything of that size or that kind of completeness, so we got overwhelmed pretty quickly just with the sheer volume and mass of the bones,” Coughenour said.

The team spent 13 hours a day breaking rock to unearth the fossil. The work continued for about two months during the first of four field seasons. Coughenour was present for the first two seasons.

“He was a very hard worker, very good at physical work, which is required in a setting like that,” Lacovara said.

Lacovara said his student kept busy during breaks from the manual labor.

“When we were in Patagonia, to relax most of us sat on a rock and threw little rocks at a big rock,” Lacovara said. “He would sit on a rock, take out a notebook and derive calculus equations, which I don’t find particularly relaxing, but apparently Chris does.”

After being unearthed, the bones were placed in burlap and plaster, loaded into a cargo container and shipped to Philadelphia. Dreadnoughtus arrived in the City of Brotherly Love on May 9, 2009, according to the Drexel University website.

The fossil material was divided into thirds and transported to Carnegie Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and Lacovara’s lab for scientific preparation and analysis. The fossil was returned to Argentina in March, per that country’s law.

Coughenour eventually returned to Drexel, where he earned his doctorate in geoscience. His dissertation was not on Dreadnoughtus, but on tidal sediments he observed in Turnagain Arm, Alaska. He used the data he collected there to try to calculate the changing distance between the Earth and the moon based on tidal drag and the rotation of both celestial bodies.

Coughenour met his future wife, Emily Kobylecky, in Alaska, where she worked as a tour guide at the Independence Mine State Historical Park.

“She is originally from Oregon, but I met her in Alaska,” he said. “It was a long-distance relationship for a while because I was in Philadelphia and she was in Oregon.”

Coughenour went on to teach at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, the University of Toledo in Ohio and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he is an assistant professor and coordinator of the university’s energy and earth resources department.

He and his wife will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary in September. The couple lives in Richland Township.

As a geologist and outdoor enthusiast, Coughenour said he enjoys the area for its beauty, recreation and natural history.

“It’s really a great place to teach sedimentary geology,” he said.

But his days of finding one-of-a-kind dinosaur fossils are probably over, at least in western Pennsylvania.

“Part of the issue is there are no rocks from the right time periods that have been preserved here,” he said. “Here we basically jumped from 300 million years ago pretty much to the present, with nothing in between.”

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime find,” he added of his work on Dreadnoughtus. “I’m sure I won’t find anything of that magnitude again.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1HnZNZq

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Information from: Daily American, https://www.dailyamerican.com

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