OKLAHOMA CITY -- Paleontologists have found bones in Oklahoma from a previously unknown species of dinosaur and one of the biggest ever discovered: a 60-ton giraffe-like creature that could have peered into a sixth-story window if there had been any buildings around 110 million years ago.
Matt Wedel, a leader of the University of Oklahoma research team, named the 60-foot-tall species of sauropod Sauroposeidon proteles, or "thunder lizard." Its name is derived from Poseidon, the Greek god associated with the sea and with earthquakes. Proteles is an allusion to the fact that it is one of the last and most specialized of its kind.
The creature was so big that "even if it tried to do so gingerly, it would create a little seismic activity" when it walked, said University of Oklahoma paleontologist Richard Cifelli.
Wedel said four of its 12 vertebrae were found, the longest 5 feet long. "It looked like a trunk of a tree," Cifelli said. The total length of the four bones is 17 to 18 feet, meaning that the dinosaur's neck would have been 39 to 40 feet.
The dinosaur's anatomy represents an "incredible compromise between making the neck strong enough to function and also be light enough so that you can lift the whole apparatus up," Cifelli said, his voice filled with excitement.
Wedel said the neck vertebrae are slender and light despite the great size. The bone is no thicker than egg shells in places and is filled with air pockets separated by thin bony struts.
The dinosaur ate pine needles and ferns. Wedel said others had estimated that it would have eaten a ton of plants per day.
Jack McIntosh, a sauropod expert at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said the vertebrae are unlike any others that have been found in the Cretaceous period. "They're very beautiful vertebrae," he said. "I was very impressed."
A report on the Sauroposeidon is expected to be published in the March issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Cifelli said the creature is "among the biggest or arguably the biggest" dinosaur ever. Cifelli said the Sauroposeidon was definitely the tallest dinosaur and definitely had the longest neck. But he said there were probably heavier and definitely longer dinosaurs.
A dog handler at a state prison in Atoka County found the bones in 1994. Scientists have been unable to locate the rest of the animal. They have tried bulldozing, remote sensing techniques and ground-penetrating radar.
"I feel like the rest of it still has to be there somewhere," Cifelli said.
Cifelli said the dinosaur was from the early Cretaceous period and was found in levels of the Earth that are about 110 million years old. At that time, the Tyrannosaurus rex was just emerging in North America.
"One would have to believe that this thing was broadly distributed along the southern United States," he said.
Wedel said the dinosaur probably was extremely careful because of its size to step carefully. Any misstep could have led a deadly tumble.
"They probably didn't move any faster than they had to," he said.