Vouivria Is The New Dinosaur That Explains Where Brachiosaurus Came From

The biggest, tallest, and heaviest animals to ever walk the earth were the dinosaurs known as titanosauriformes. (Come on—"titan" is right in the name.) Brachiosaurus is probably the best known member of the family, and, at 14 meters tall, was a longtime contender for largest land animal ever, but has since been dethroned. Big as brachiosaurus was, it apparently didn't make a big impact on the fossil record, since paleontologists have struggled to understand exactly what this behemoth evolved from. Turns out, a big part of the answer was right under their nose—or should we say, in a museum cabinet.

The Acorn To Titanosaurs' Oak Tree

Titanosauriformes were sauropods like apatosaurus and diplodocus, but generally much larger and more sturdily built. They came in two main flavors: brachiosaurs, which are notable for their extreme height and the fact that their nostrils were on the top of their heads, and titanosaurs, who dwarfed brachiosaurs in both length and weight and sometimes had bony armor. Titanosauriformes were also the only sauropods to make it almost all the way through the Cretaceous period—they probably died out about 300 thousand years before the comet hit the Earth. Clearly, we have a pretty good idea of what the world was like when these animals were the dominant herbivore, but a lack of early fossils has up until now meant that we don't really understand how they came to be. Until now.

Dated to 160 million years ago, Vouivria damparisensis is the newest oldest titanosauriforme fossil. We've just been holding on to it for more than 80 years. In 1934, workers in a chalkstone quarry near Damparis, France, noticed the bones in the walls of the quarry. They were excavated, placed in a museum, and promptly forgotten about aside from the occasional passing reference in an academic text. Now that they've finally gotten around to describing the fossil, scientists have found it's a piece that fits right into the puzzle they've been constructing.

Vouivria would have been on the brachiosaur side of the family tree, but came early enough that titanosaurs might not have split off yet. Most notable was Vouivria's size. Though clearly a titanosauriforme (it had forehead nostrils, for instance), it was only 15 meters (50 feet) long. That's only as long as a brachiosaurus is tall. This little guy was clearly on its way to bigger things.

Related: Why Everything You Know About Dinosaurs Is Wrong

[[Right humerus of Vouivria damparisensis]]

What Vouivria Tells Us

So, besides providing us with a "missing link" and turning out to be the runt of a very large family, what does Vouivria tell us about titanosauriformes and the dinosaur world at large? For one thing, it gives us a clue as to how brachiosaurus's giraffe-like neck got the way that it is. Vouivria held its neck at a 45-degree angle rather than pointing it straight up like a brachiosaurus. Also unlike a brachiosaurus, the older dinosaur had four legs of the same size, while the younger one had longer front legs than back legs.

Perhaps most interestingly, vouivria may force us to reconsider an old assumption we've long since discarded. When brachiosaurus was first discovered, it was assumed that it lived underwater, walking on lakebeds with its upward-facing nostrils acting as a blowhole. Eventually, we gathered evidence that brachiosaurus preferred a drier climate, putting that hypothesis to bed. But Vouivria apparently lived in a coastal lagoon environment, so that old chestnut might have some life in it yet!

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Written by Reuben Westmaas May 12, 2017

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