Dicraeosauridae is a family of mid-sized sauropod dinosaurs characterized by a distinctive vertebral column with paired, long, neural spines. The group was first described in 1914 by Werner Janensch with the discovery of the nearly complete skeletons of Dicraeosaurus in the expeditions to the upper Jurassic beds of Tendaguru, Tanzania. Dicraeosauridae includes Amargasaurus, Pilmatueia, Suuwassea, and Brachytrachelopan. Now, the description of Bajadasaurus pronuspinax gen. et sp. nov., from the Early Lower Cretaceous of Bajada Colorada Formation in Northern Patagonia, Argentina), shed new light on the function of its spines and the defense behavior in sauropod dinosaurs.
Bajadasaurus was discovered in 2013, by a team of paleontologists from CONICET, Fundación Félix de Azara, Universidad Maimónides, and Museo Paleontológico Ernesto Bachmann. The generic name derived from Bajada (Spanish, in reference to the locality Bajada Colorada) and saurus (Greek, lizard). The specific name derived from pronus (Latin, bent over forward) and spinax (Greek, spine), referring to the anteriorly pointed, curved, neural spines of the cervical vertebrae.
The holotype, MMCh-PV 75, includes a nearly complete skull (left maxilla, left lacrimal, both prefrontals, both frontals, both parietals, both postorbitals, both squamosals, left quadratojugal, both pterygoids, both quadrates, supraoccipital, exoccipital-opisthotic complex, basioccipital, basisphenoid, both prootics, both laterosphenoids, both orbitosphenoids, both dentaries, left surangular, both angulars, both splenials, left prearticular, left articular, isolated upper tooth row), both proatlases, atlantal neurapophyses, axis and the fifth cervical vertebra.
The skull of Bajadasaurus is gracile, with dorsally exposed orbits, dorsoventrally compressed occipital condyle, extremely narrow basipterygoid processes, elongate and slender anterior processes of the squamosals, medially extended post-temporal fenestrae, short lateral temporal fenestrae and a reduced dentition in the maxilla and dentary, that largely differs from other known taxa within Dicraeosauridae. But the most striking feature of Bajadasaurus is the presence of extremely long cervical neural spines that curve anteriorly. Amargasaurus exhibit the same development of cervical neural spine elongation as Bajadasaurus, but the spines of the former point backwards rather than forwards. Dicraeosaurus and Brachytrachelopan show anteriorly inclined neural spines in the cervical vertebrae, but the spines are much shorter than in Bajadasaurus.
The discovery of Amargasaurus cazaui in 1991, from the Early Cretaceous beds of La Amarga Formation of Northern Patagonia, renewed the discussion on the peculiar vertebral anatomy of these sauropod dinosaurs, including interpretations as a support structure for a thermoregulatory sail, a padded crest as a display and/or clattering structure, a dorsal hump, or as internal cores of dorsal horn. Those explanation, except the last one, require that these long and extremely gracile bone projections, now recognized in Bajadasaurus as well, can support enough physical stress to avoid fracturing. Bone is stronger and stiffer in passive situations, however, horns and other keratin-based materials are tougher and highly resistant to impact-related fractures. Therefore, the keratinous sheath in Amargasaurus and perhaps Bajadasaurus provides a better mechanical solution against a potential fracture.
Gallina, Pablo A., Apesteguía, Sebastián, Canale, Juan I., Haluza, Alejandro (2019), A new long-spined dinosaur from Patagonia sheds light on sauropod defense system, Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 1392 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-37943-3
Janensch, W. Die Wirbelsäule der Gattung Dicraeosaurus. Palaeontographica Supplement 7, 37–133 (1929).
Salgado, L. & Bonaparte, J. F. Un nuevo saurópodo Dicraeosauridae, Amargasaurus cazaui gen et sp. nov., de la Formación La Amarga, Neocomiano de la provincia del Neuquén, Argentina. Ameghiniana 28, 333–346 (1991).