Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile: The role that UC had in the discovery of the Chilean dinosaur

The end of the year in Chile was marked by global scientific research, the discovery of a new type of dinosaur from nothing more and nothing less than the south of the country.

We are talking about the Stegouros elengassen , a specimen of about two meters in size and that the researchers define as the “Rosetta Stone” of the ankylosaurs of the Southern Hemisphere. In other words, an evolutionary link that explains the lack of remains of this specimen in our region, until now.

“To do the scanner we had to go to UC Christus one morning in January, very early to avoid encountering any demonstration, because we were going with the complete fossil. We even had to go out during the analysis, because there were patients who needed urgent tests” – Joao Botelho, academic of the Faculty of Biological Sciences

It all started in February 2018 with the discovery of an enigmatic fossil on a steep hill in the Valle del Río las Chinas, an inhospitable area of ​​the Magallanes Region near the Torres del Paine, based on an investigation by researchers Alexander Vargas and Sergio Soto from the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Chile, both close to the UC researcher, Joao Botelho , who tells us this story.

“We are friends and colleagues. When the Ring project behind this research started, I was at Yale and working with a new digital segmentation technology, which works through an X-ray machine that generates a 3D image. Thanks to special software, it makes it possible to identify each of the analyzed bones, differentiate them by color and create a digital mold, which in the case of this study, allowed us to ‘reassemble’ the dinosaur. Alex told me that I had to see his discovery, and I returned to Chile to do it with this technology”, says the researcher and professor of Veterinary Medicine at UC.

The collaboration of Joao and the student José Antonio Palma of the Biological Sciences Doctoral Program would not come until a year later in the analysis of the fossil, incredibly preserved after 74 million years, with practically all its bones present and with a conspicuous tail that did not resemble any dinosaur known to date. The problem? It was precisely in the period between the social outbreak and the pandemic.

“To do the scanner we had to go to UC Christus one morning in January, very early to avoid encountering any demonstration, because we were going with the complete fossil. We even had to go out during the scan, because there were patients who needed urgent tests who couldn’t wait for the dinosaur scan to finish. Meanwhile, during the pandemic, José had to take the software home to be able to continue with the segmentation despite the fact that we were in quarantine, which included a computer and the pen drive with the permissions to use this technology”, comments Botelho about his participation and that of Palma in the study.

“Every great university in the world has a zoological collection. UC has been appearing at a very high level in terms of science; It would be very nice if it could follow this path with a unified sample with the different areas of the university – Joao Botelho, academic of the Faculty of Biological Sciences

Thanks to this analysis, which took several months, and the use of a unique technology in Chile brought directly from Yale University by the UC researcher, they were able to review in detail the seven pairs of bones in this tail. This allowed them to compare it in their description to a war club used by the ancient Aztecs called a macuahuitl.

It was precisely this tail that made it possible to identify Stegouros elengassen with a new type of armored dinosaur, and that earned the study the cover of the prestigious scientific journal Nature during the month of December.

In addition, the investigation allowed us to identify that this dinosaur had characteristics associated with both stegosaurus and ankylosaurs, as if it were a unique hybrid species: smaller, with lighter armor, slimmer limbs, and its unique tail.

This would not be possible without the important progress that paleontology has had in Chile in this decade.

In 2011, the first species of dinosaur for Chile (Atacamatitan chilensis) was recently described, today, 10 years later, there are already four, two of which have appeared in the prestigious journal Nature (Chilesaurus diegosuarezi and Stegouros elengassen). The latter carried out entirely by researchers living in Chile and fully financed by national projects.

“A country is generated with a network of knowledge and in Chile some nodes were missing. Now we have people capable of reaching the field, dating the follow-up of the study, seeing how this animal died, with transportation technologies and logistics, with the ability to generate images and study them. This represents for our country the maturity of new areas of knowledge, and for the UC, it is a great discovery for the School of Veterinary Medicine, with global interdisciplinary studies from morphology, biology, engineering, and above all, with a publication in Nature having less than 3 years of life”, says the researcher.

What is left now? “Every great university in the world has a zoological collection. Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford are some clear examples, also in Mexico City and Sao Paulo there are some regional cases. The UC has been appearing at a very high level in terms of science, it would be very nice if it could follow this path with a unified exhibition with the different areas of the university, which is open to the public, imagine in Campus Oriente, with access to the street, with heritage from all over the country and cared for by the Catholic University. That is my dream, I hope to be here if that step is taken at some point, ”Joao answers to close.

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