Treasure Trove of Dinosaur Fossils Could Rewrite Prehistory

Researchers have discovered the biggest and most complete cluster of dinosaur fossils ever found in Italy. The treasure trove contains the remains of at least seven dinosaurs, including the almost-complete skeleton of an individual given the name Bruno.

The skeleton of Bruno, found at Villaggio del Pescatore near Trieste, in northeastern Italy, is the most pristine and complete dinosaur fossil ever found in Italy, a country not known for its dinosaur remains.

In the cluster of fossils was another near-complete individual, given the name Antonio, who appears to be smaller than Bruno, and thus could have been an adolescent. The prehistoric reptiles are from the species Tethyshadros insularis, part of the hadrosaur family -- herbivorous dinosaurs known for their "duck-billed" beaks.

The skeleton of Bruno, the most complete dinosaur remains ever found in Italy. Researchers say this finding could shake up what we know about the ancient Mediterranean. P. Ferrieri/Soprintendenza Archeologia, belle arti e paesaggio del Friuli-Venezia Giulia

The discovery could shake up what paleontologists know about the reign of dinosaurs, between 230 million and 66 million years ago, as this region of the ancient Mediterranean isn't a famous site for large dinosaurs.

The scientists dated the site and its fossils to an era of Earth's history called the Cretaceous period, meaning Bruno and Antonio are likely around 80 million years old.

This area, during this period of prehistory, would have been made up of numerous small islands that went on to form the mainland of the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia. These islands weren't considered suitable for supporting the lifestyles of larger animals.

The team's findings were reported in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

When the team, including researchers from the University of Bologna, initially found Antonio they believed the dinosaur was an example of a dwarf species. This conforms to the so-called island rule of evolution that suggests that because of a shortage of resources, as generations of large animals proceed they evolve into smaller animals.

The discovery that Antonio is an adolescent example of a much larger dinosaur could revise what we understand about the geology of the ancient Mediterranean.

The researchers who made the finding believe the presence of larger dinosaurs could indicate that land bridges existed to the small island that would become the region around Villaggio del Pescatore.

Antonio and Bruno
An illustration of Bruno and Antonio. Originally the smaller dinosaur was believed to be part of a dwarf species of hadrosaurs until its larger counterpart was discovered at the same site. University of Bologna

That means that what is now northeastern Italy could have been connected to western Europe and Asia. There could have been many migratory routes that allowed large terrestrial animals like the dinosaurs to cross over to these small islands.

Dinosaurs weren't the only prehistoric animals represented in the fossil hoard. Other creatures found included fish, crocodiles, flying reptiles and even small crustaceans. This means that this discovery could provide a vivid picture of an ancient ecosystem that paleontologists have only glimpsed in the past.

The fossils collected from the site are now on display in Trieste at the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale.

The research and the site from which the fossils were recovered, protected due to its geological and paleontological importance, could give the Italian dinosaur fossil record a pivotal role in future investigations of the prehistoric world and the epoch of the dinosaurs.

Tethyshadros insularis
An illustration of an adult and two juvenile Tethyshadros insularis dinosaurs in their ancient surroundings. A new discovery of fossils in Italy included a near complete adult and juvenile Tethyshadros insularis. Davide Bonadonna/University of Bologna