Say hello to Alan, Britain’s oldest sauropod dinosaur. A giant of its time, this colossal beast would have been found stomping around the wetlands of Middle Jurassic Britain, chomping on cycads and ferns. Remarkably, Alan was identified from a single fossil bone, which is thought to be around 176 million years old.
A member of a group of dinosaurs that includes some of the largest animals ever to have walked the Earth, Alan was found when his vertebra dropped from the cliff face near the seaside town of Whitby, Yorkshire. While footprints from massive sauropods have been known in the region for a while, this is the earliest fossil bone from these titans to be found in the country.
Roaming the Earth for around 150 million years, sauropods were geographically widespread herbivores with fossils or footprints discovered in every continent except for Antarctica. Characterized by tree-trunk-style legs and tiny heads on the ends of massive necks, they dwarfed the other dinos of the day. Some species, such as Argentinosaurus, grew to a staggering 35 meters (115ft) and weighed in at an impressive 80 tonnes.
The team behind the latest study, from the University of Manchester, used X-Ray tomography to study the vertebra. While they don’t have enough evidence to say if it’s of a previously unknown species, they have concluded that it most closely resembles that of another sauropod known from British shores, Cetiosaurus, although this new fossil predates these monster creatures by around 4 million years. Based on this, the researchers have decided to name it after the guy who found the bone, Alan Gurr.
“Many scientists have worked on the amazing dinosaur tracks from the Middle Jurassic rocks of Yorkshire. It was a splendid surprise to come face-to-face with a fossil vertebra from the Jurassic rocks of Yorkshire that was clearly from a sauropod dinosaur,” explained Professor Phil Manning, one of the authors of the study. “This fossil offers the earliest 'body fossil' evidence for this important group of dinosaurs in the United Kingdom, but it is impossible to define a new species based upon this single bone.”
Fossils like this are extremely rare as rocks originating from the Middle Jurassic are only exposed in a few places worldwide, most notably in Argentina and China. The scientists hope that more bones from Alan will fall out of the cliff over time as it continues to erode and this could eventually help them to classify the species to which the fossil belonged. The study is published in PLoS ONE.
In the meantime, Alan is resting up in the collections at the Yorkshire Museum in York, waiting to see if any of his other body parts might yet be discovered.