They used a backhoe for 5 straight days to completely unearth the specimen. Thanks to information provided by the Paleontological Research Center (CIP, for its Spanish acronym), UNal scientists discovered the remains of the marine reptile almost in intact conditions near a hill in a rural community known as Arrayán.
The discovered specimen could be a new species for science and found in early Barremian landscape Cretaceous rocks. In other words, it lived approximately 125 million years ago, when this region was completely under water.
Just the cranium of the reptile measures almost 10 ft. and the body, without the tail, which is missing, 32.5 ft. therefore the original size could be up to 36 ft. in length.
This estimation was performed by UNal Department of Geosciences Professor and Paleontologist María Páramo Fonseca, who led the excavation, preparation, and research of the fossil.
This fossil was discovered back in 2009 while the Colombian Petroleum Company (Ecopetrol, for its Spanish acronym) was exploring the area and which had been earmarked for an oil pipeline. They identified some bone fragments which caught the attention of Páramo.
The first assessment led her to conclude that this was an important discovery, so she began digging ditches all around and discovered some vertebrae, full evidence they were in front of a species of great proportions.
After obtaining financing from Ecopetrol, through a research agreement, UNal continued the recovery process with help from the locals, especially from the Mayor of the moment Miguel Ángel Abril, who firmly supported the project.
“For us, this discovery was very important and we think this finding could turn into an international and scientific tourist attraction,” said Ángel, while walking around the main park of this municipality. His sentiment is shared by the Community Action Board, who also says this can help the city with tourist income and newfound prosperity.
Using shovels and other tools helpers, citizens and CIP technicians directed by Páramo began the arduous task of unearthing the bones of the pliosaurus.
It took at least a full month to extract the fossil. They built a sort of tunnel under the bones, while the surface was covered with plaster, protecting the 14 blocks of extracted bones. “The excavation was protected by the police,” recalls Páramo, who does not discard the possibility of illegal treasure hunters wanting to steal fragments to sell-off as souvenirs.
Using a backhoe, the large blocks were placed on a truck and taken to the community center. After that, the center turned into a laboratory for experts and using razor blades, chisels and other tools they completed the cleaning process.
UNal experts hired local hands and CIP technicians and prepared the mechanical means, as one of the most used tools in paleontology and other chemical tools to remove the rock.
The research project was developed with the support of students associated with the project. In 2015 financing from Ecopetrol was exhausted and the work had to stop for a little over a year until the Colombian Geological Survey approved funds to continue the project.
Last year, the research was reinstated and with support of master´s candidate Christian Benavidez and along with Páramo they focused on the morphological study of the fossil comparing bone y bone with different pre-historic specimens discovered in different locations around the world such as Australia, the United States, and Europe and obviously another specimen discovered in the municipality of Villa de Leyva a few years back.
Up to now, they know that the fossil is older than the fossil found previously in Villa de Leyva, and although it is larger, it seems to have fewer teeth. Furthermore, they have identified other particularities of the cranium, the palate and the backbone which turn into significant information for the scientific studies.
The extraordinary preservation conditions of this fossil are also interesting. Páramo claims Colombia has the best fossils of the Barremian.
Several aspects turn into scientific expectations such as the type of preservation and the form the species fossilized, as well as living and feeding conditions and its relationships with other species of the time, among others.
The fossil is now covered with special resins, with a special eye from the inhabitants of Sáchica who want to turn into a tourist attraction, following the steps of neighboring Villa de Leyva.
In the next few days, the UNal will have a special event to submit the fossil to the Colombian Geological Survey, the entity in charge of the paleontological patrimony of the country.
On that day, the current mayor of Sáchica Édgar Orlando Cuadrado and other local authorities will be present so the fossil will not be taken away as their have their hopes for a better future as tomato and union crops have not been as successful this year.
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