Armor for Sauropods

Will we ever find out what Augustinia looked like?

A speculative restoration of the armored sauropod Agustinia
A speculative restoration of the armored sauropod Agustinia Art by Nobu Tamura, image from Wikipedia

Sauropods are often called “long-necked dinosaurs.” The term is apt – sauropods such as Barosaurus had necks of mind-boggling proportions – but the designation is only the barest sketch of what these dinosaurs were like. After all, long necks were not unique to these herbivores. The recently-discovered stegosaur Miragaia had an extended neck, and the weird feathery theropods called therizinosaurs also had long series of cervical vertebrae. But, more than that, sauropods were a strange, disparate group of animals that were so much more than a long neck on a stout body. Many have odd decorations and weapons – from the tail club of Shunosaurus to the double rows of enigmatic neck spines on Amargasaurus. One of the most spectacularly-ornamented sauropods was Augustinia.

Compared to other sauropods with armor and other bony ornamentation, Augustinia was exceptional. Rather than possessing a mosaic of large and small scutes, as in sauropods like Saltasaurus, the roughly 110 million-year-old Augustinia had a double-row of spiky knobs along its back. Some paleo artists restore these bones as thin, flattened plates – similar to the decorations on stegosaurs – while others go for a more rounded, knobby look. Either way, this was a truly unusual sauropod that took bony adornments to extremes, and the osteoderms that festooned this dinosaur’s back probably had more to do with display than defense.

Sadly, we really don’t know very much more about Augustinia. Paleontologist Jose Bonaparte announced the dinosaur in 1998, and issued a description the following year, but the dinosaur is only known from pieces of armor, a few limb bones, and fragments from other parts of the body. If a paleontologist is lucky enough to find even a partial skeleton with a few articulated parts, that specimen would greatly enhance our understanding of what Augustinia looked like and how it lived. We can only hope. For now, this unexpected armored dinosaur remains a tantalizing mystery.