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Palaeontologists

Remembering José Bonaparte: The Man who Revolutionized South American Paleontology

A reflection on the life of José Bonaparte, the man who changed South American paleontology.

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On February 18, 2020, paleontology lost a giant: José Bonaparte, whom many regard as the Father of South American paleontology, passed away at the age of 91. Born in 1928 in Rosario, Santé Fe, Argentina, Bonaparte started a fossil revolution throughout South America, leading to the discovery of dozens of new dinosaur species since the 1970’s. As the Curator of the National University of Tucumán and Senior Scientist of the Museo Argentina de Ciencias Naturales in Buenos Aires, he mentored a generation of Argentinian paleontologists. Before Bonaparte came along, there were only a handful of dinosaurs discovered in South America; in the present, there are over 100. His influence was seemingly limitless, with dozens of these new species being described or named by Bonaparte himself. This article is an homage to Bonaparte, and his contributions to the field.

Dinosaurs such as the goliath sauropod Argentinosaurus, the spike backed Amargasaurus, the armoured Titanosaur Saltasaurus and the horned theropod Carnotaurus, were all discovered by Bonaparte. All of these demonstrate the absolute evolutionary extremes that dinosaurs were capable of – truly “weird” specimens! Bonaparte described and discovered two new dinosaur families; the blunt snouted Abelisaurids and the possible ant-eating Alverezsaurids, both of which have become staples of modern paleontology. His discovery of the Hadrosaurid Secernosaurus (at the time identified as Kritosaurus Australis, has since been reclassified) helped to demonstrate that South America and North America were connected at some point during the late Cretaceous period; prior to this discovery, the two continents were believed to have been isolated from one another. In addition to expanding the known diversity of dinosaur species in South America, Bonaparte also helped to discover a variety of late Cretaceous mammal species, including individuals of the Gondwanatheres, extinct mammals’ unqiue to South America and Madagascar. His work encompassed so much of the ancient world that paleontologist Robert Bakker dubbed Bonaparte “the master of the Mesozoic”, a fitting name for a man who has contributed so much.

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In my life as an amateur paleontologist, Bonaparte frequently figures into my research, serving as an inspiration. His humble beginnings as an amateur paleontologist who collected fossils without any formal training — who worked his way up to becoming the titan of paleontology that we recognize him for today — is motivating to young paleontologists such as myself, whose love for paleontology started in a very similar way to Bonaparte. The respect his peers had for him was immense, as many current South American paleontologists were mentored by Bonaparte or worked alongside him in their studies. His accomplishments were fully recognized in 2008, when he received the Romer-Simpson medal of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which is the highest achievable award amongst vertebrate paleontologists. Bonaparte’s legacy as the founder of South American paleontology will persist for centuries, as the sheer nature of his work was unlike any other figure within paleontology.

 Notable Species discovered by José Bonaparte

  • Carnotaurus: A horned Abelisaurid.
  • Argentinosaurus: A sauropod, possibly the largest dinosaur ever.
  • Amargasaurus: A spike-backed sauropod.
  • Abelisaurus: The first discovered Abelisaurid.
  • Antarctosaurus: A massive sauropod, close in size to
  • Andesaurus: Another massive sauropod.
  • Agustinia: Originally thought to be spike backed, now seen as a generic Sauropod.
  • Dinheirosaurus: A Diplodocid sauropod from Portugal.
  • Herrerasaurus: One of the first known theropod dinosaurs.
  • Saltasaurus: An armoured sauropod, now known from thousands of fossil eggs.
  • Secernosaurus: One of the only hadrosaurs known from the southern hemisphere.
  • Pterodaustro: A pterosaur with baleen-like filters on its jaw.

 

References:

“SVP – Romer-Simpson Medal.” Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2020, vertpaleo.org/Awards/Award-(7).aspx.

“Giants of the Lost World: Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Monsters of South America.” Giants of the Lost World: Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Monsters of South America, by Donald R. Prothero, Smithsonian Books, 2016, pp. 21–25.

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