The Volgatitan (Volgatitan simbirskiensis) sounds like a villain straight out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it was, in fact, a living, breathing beast that roamed what is now Siberia 200 to 65 million years ago. Researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences described the dinosaur for the first time in a paper published in the journal Biological Communications.
The revelation was made after the discovery of seven vertebrae bones representing the anterior and middle caudals from an adult specimen on the banks of the Volga River (hence the name), 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Russian city of Ulyanovsk and 700 kilometers (430 miles) from Moscow. From these fossils, the researchers were able to determine the animal's size (17 tons) and the family of dinosaurs the species belonged to (the titanosaurian sauropods).
The titanosaurian sauropods (or titanosaurs) – named after the Titans, Ancient Greek deities known for being especially large – were some of the biggest vertebrates to walk the Earth, with some especially large species tipping the scales at over 70 tons.
They were also the last surviving group of a type of dinosaur called the sauropods, a band of giant herbivores discernable by their extremely long necks and tails, small heads, and stocky legs. Diplodocus, Brontosaurus, and Brachiosaurus were all sauropods. In fact, sauropods were so common that they are thought to have made up roughly a quarter of all dinosaur species – if you exclude birds, that is. But because of their small and fragile bones, their remains are vulnerable to decay and erosion, which means their fossil record is lacking and discoveries like this are relatively rare.
The new find, the researchers say, is particularly spectacular and newsworthy. This is because there were two main groups of lithostrotian titanosaurs. One went on to disperse across much of the world, their range stretching to every continent including Antarctica. The second – the lineage that Volgatitan belongs to – was thought to have been restricted to regions in the Southern Hemisphere, specifically South America. This particular dinosaur appears to be the oldest representative of its lineage of titanosaurs geologically speaking, dating back to the Early Cretaceous, and apparently the first of its kind in Europe.
The discovery challenges the titanosaur timeline. It suggests, the researchers say, that the distribution of titanosaurs during the Early Cretaceous was much broader than previously thought. It may also imply that the Titanosauria had a longer (and currently little-known) early evolutionary history in the supercontinent Laurasia.