What does it take to transport a 101-million-year-old titanosaur? Here’s everything you need to know.
At IAG Cargo, we’re experts in moving freight of all shapes and sizes, from pharmaceuticals to perishables and automotive parts. But a 101-million-year-old titanosaur – one of the largest known creatures to have ever walked our planet – is a first. And it’s not just any old titanosaur: we moved a Patagotitan mayorum, the big daddy of the group, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from Buenos Aires to London.
The remarkable replica will be unveiled for the first time in Europe at the Natural History Museum’s new temporary exhibition, Titanosaur: Life as the biggest dinosaur, opening on 31 March 2023 . We reveal the backstory of our magnificent prehistoric passenger, what it took to achieve this colossal move, plus how we keep precious cargo safe from start to finish.
What is a titanosaur?
Titanosaurs, a group of sauropods – herbivorous dinosaurs that had small heads, long necks and long, whip-like tails – lived on every continent during the Cretaceous period. Patagotitan lived 101 million years ago in the forests of today’s Patagonia, where they roamed in herds from one place to the next. So what set titanosaurs apart from their sauropod counterparts? They had wider hips, fewer toe bones on their front limbs, and some even had armour in their skin called osteoderms.
As you might be able to guess from the name, the titanosaurs’ real claim to fame comes from their size. Three times longer than the roaring Tyrannosaurus rex, Patagotitan reached over 120ft in length – comparable to an Airbus A320 – and weighed around 57 tonnes – more than nine African elephants or around four times heavier than Dippy the Diplodocus. It’s hard to believe that their eggs were smaller than a football (that’s a lot of growing to do).
Bringing Patagotitan mayorum to life
Fast-forward to 2010, when a rancher in La Flecha, Argentina, spotted a bone sticking out of the ground. More than 280 bones were eventually excavated and brought to the nearby Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, and a replica was built at the museum’s factory.
Each fossil – including a femur (thigh bone) measuring more than two metres – was scanned and reconstructed from materials such as latex and polyester resin with fiberglass. The originals are preserved for research and five of these – including the femur – are exhibited near the replica, meaning, yes, you can indeed see them at Titanosaur: Life as the biggest dinosaur. As 100 per cent of a skeleton was never uncovered, the remaining parts were recreated based on similar species. The result? A magnificent model that’s over 120ft long (nearly 40ft longer than Hope the blue whale) and weighs around 2.7 tonnes.
How does a dinosaur catch a flight?
Plans to move the cast from Trelew to London began in 2022. Taking it apart took four months and a team of 20 experts, who used everything from cranes to drills and brushes – they even had lifting platforms to reach the skull and the last piece of the tail. Then came one week of packaging the 225 bones into 32 specially designed crates, along with four which contained real fossils, engineered to ensure that the parts did not move during transport. The smallest box, containing the skull, measured 1.2m x 60cm and the largest 3.4m x 1.8m (picture a carthorse). All were loaded into two trucks, journeying 1,300km from Trelew to the Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires.
Every single bone required a temporary export permit for paleontological heritage, which included its name and code of the collection, weight, size and a photograph (similar to a passport), as well as insurance and a visa-like document, giving it permission to be out of the country for one year – which explains the four days of customs clearance and security checks. At the airport, it was all hands on deck to ensure our exceptional ground handling teams safely loaded the precious cargo into the bellyhold of the aircraft via our high security service, Secure.
Finally, the titanosaur took its seat(s) and to the skies inside the bellies of two British Airways B787-9 aircraft.
After journeying for almost 7,000 miles, Patagotitan mayorum landed at London Heathrow, where it was transferred to secret off-site storage. More inspections followed before the 32 crates were moved to England’s ‘cathedral to nature’, the Natural History Museum.
“I am immensely proud of what my Secure Cargo Team have achieved. No two days are the same working in Operations at IAG Cargo, but being responsible for greeting one of the world’s largest known dinosaurs on my home turf and ensuring it was moved safely through our facilities was very special.”
Andrew Gipps, Department Manager – Ascentis, London Operations
“We are so grateful that IAG Cargo transported the cast of Patagotitan to the Natural History Museum for its European debut. Our fascination with dinosaurs provides the ideal opportunity to inspire and inform the next generation about the natural world, and empower them to act for the planet.”
Dr Alex Burch, Director of Public Programmes, Natural History Museum
Unloading the boxes – some of which weighed almost 800kg – into a Victorian building with restricted door sizes, terracotta walls and fragile mosaic floors meant tracking down special lifting equipment and meeting many other challenges (all well worth it, of course). It took more than a fortnight, four separate out-of-hours deliveries, up to eight members at any one period from the internal production team and three technicians from the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio to get it all done, including the very important task of building the titanosaur cast. The dinosaur was assembled from the feet up and put together one piece at a time like a giant toy model (trust us, you’re going to want to see it).
Our history of flying precious cargo
We’re no stranger to transporting valuable freight safely and seamlessly. Over the years, our exceptionally high-security service, Secure, has also seen terracotta soldiers from China and Egyptian mummies. Both our staff and customers must meet strict screening requirements before using Secure’s specialist facilities, where cargo is stored in state-of-the-art vaults that are constantly monitored using CCTV and active human surveillance. Our list of impressive moves doesn’t stop here: we’ve shipped concert equipment for top musicians including Ozzy Osbourne and The Who, film production props for blockbuster movies, and live animals like April the sea turtle for conservation purposes.
So if we can ship all the above and one of the world’s largest known dinosaurs, then what can’t we do? Go ahead – see what else we can do.
This article was originally published on The Club, British Airways’ online magazine for Executive Club Members.