Introducing Ninjatitan zapatai, the earliest known titanosaur

Anterior caudal vertebra of Ninjatitan zapatai. Scale bar equals 10 cm. From Gallina et al., 2021

Titanosauria is the most diverse sauropod clade represented by nearly 80 genera described worldwide, the vast majority of which were recovered from Upper Cretaceous sediments of Argentina. It has been suggested that the titanosaurian origin took place around 135 million years ago in South America. The study of this diverse group of large, long-necked, herbivorous dinosaurs embrace an extensive list of important contributions, which started with Richard Lydekker’s pioneering work on Patagonian dinosaurs.

The discovery of Ninjatitan zapatai, a new specimen from the Lower Cretaceous Bajada Colorada Formation (Berriasian–Valanginian) of north Patagonia, supports the hypothesis that the group was already established in the Southern Hemisphere and reinforces the idea of a Gondwanan origin for Titanosauria. Ninjatitan lived 140 million years ago and reached 20 meters in length (65 feet). The firs remains were discovered in 2014 by technician Jonatan Aroca. The holotype (MMCh-Pv228) includes an incomplete anterior–middle dorsal vertebra, a middle dorsal centrum, and anterior caudal centra with the base of neural arches preserved, a complete left scapula, a fragmentary distal femur, and a nearly complete left fibula of a single individual. The generic name honors the Argentine paleontologist Sebastián “Ninja” Apesteguía. The species name refers to Mr. Rogelio “Mupi” Zapata, in recognition for his work as a technician of the Museo Municipal Ernesto Bachman.

Left scapula of Ninjatitan zapatai. Scale bar equals 10 cm. From Gallina et al., 2021.

Despite the fragmentary nature of the new taxon, three derived characters of Ninjatitan support its possition within the clade Titanosauria: 1) presence of procoelous anterior caudal centra; 2) pneumatized neural arch of anterior caudal vertebrae; and 3) position of the acromial process near the glenoid level. The position of Ninjatitan, as a basal titanosaur, extends the origin of this clade by at least 10 Myr.

The Berriasian–Valanginian Bajada Colorada Formation of Neuquén Province, Patagonia Argentina, has provided novel information in the last years that helps to elucidate the evolutionary history of different sauropod lineages. The first sauropod taxon recognized from this unit was the diplodocid Leinkupal laticauda. The second taxon is the recently described dicraeosaurid Bajadasaurus pronuspinax.


Pablo Ariel Gallina, Juan Ignacio Canale, & José Luis Carballido (2021).The earliest known titanosaur sauropod dinosaur. Ameghiniana58(1), 35–51

Sander PM, Christian A, Clauss M, et al. Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs: the evolution of gigantism. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2011;86(1):117-155. doi:10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00137.x