The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of France

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From Ampelosaurus to Pyroraptor, These Dinosaurs Terrorized Prehistoric France

Plateosaurus, a dinosaur of France. Wikimedia Commons

France is famous worldwide for its food, its wine, and its culture, but few people know that many dinosaurs (and other prehistoric creatures) have been discovered in this country, adding immeasurably to our trove of paleontological knowledge. On the following slides, in alphabetical order, you'll find a list of the most notable dinosaurs and prehistoric animals ever to have lived in France.

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Ampelosaurus, a dinosaur of France. Dmitry Bogdanov

One of the best-attested of all titanosaurs--the lightly armored descendants of the giant sauropods of the late Jurassic period--Ampelosaurus is known from hundreds of scattered bones discovered in a quarry in southern France. As titanosaurs go, this "vine lizard" was fairly petite, only measuring about 50 feet from head to tail and weighing in the vicinity of 15 to 20 tons (compared to upwards of 100 tons for South American titanosaurs like Argentinosaurus).

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Arcovenator, a dinosaur of France. Nobu Tamura

The abelisaurs, typified by Abelisaurus, were a breed of meat-eating dinosaurs that originated in South America. What makes Arcovenator important is that it's one of the few abelisaurs to have been discovered in western Europe, specifically the Cote d'Azur region of France. Even more confusingly, this late Cretaceous "arc hunter" seems to have been closely related to the contemporaneous Majungasaurus, from the distant island of Madagascar, and Rajasaurus, which lived in India!

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The Auroch

the auroch
The Auroch, a prehistoric animal of France. Wikimedia Commons

To be fair, fossil specimens of the Auroch have been discovered all over western Europe--what gives this Pleistocene ancestor of modern cattle its Gallic tinge is its inclusion, by an unknown artist, in the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, France, which date from tens of thousands of years ago. As you might have surmised, the one-ton Auroch was both feared and coveted by early humans, who worshiped it as a deity at the same time as they hunted it for its meat (and possibly for its hide as well).

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Cryonectes, a prehistoric marine reptile of France. Nobu Tamura

Thanks to the vagaries of the fossilization process, we know very little about life in western Europe during the early Jurassic period, circa 185 to 180 million years ago. One exception is the "cold swimmer," Cryonectes, a 500-pound pliosaur that was ancestral to later giants like Liopleurodon (see slide #9). At the time Cryonectes lived, Europe was experiencing one of its periodic cold snaps, which may help to explain this marine reptile's relatively svelte proportions (only about 10 feet long and 500 pounds).

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Cycnorhamphus, a pterosaur of France. Wikimedia Commons

Which name is more fitting for a French pterosaur: Cycnorhamphus ("swan beak") or Gallodactylus ("Gallic finger")? If you prefer the latter, you're not alone; unfortunately, the winged reptile Gallodactylus (named in 1974) reverted back to the less euphonious Cycnorhamphus (named in 1870) upon reexamination of the fossil evidence. Whatever you choose to call it, this French pterosaur was an extremely close relative of Pterodactylus, distinguished only by its unusual jaw.

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Dubreuillosaurus, a dinosaur of France. Nobu Tamura

Not the most easily pronounced or spelled dinosaur (see also Cycnorhamphus, previous slide), Dubreuillosaurus was distinguished by its unusual long skull, but otherwise it was a plain vanilla theropod (meat-eating dinosaur) of the middle Jurassic period closely related to Megalosaurus. In an impressive feat of applied paleontology, this two-ton dinosaur was reconstructed from thousands of bone fragments discovered in a Normandy quarry in the course of the 1990's.

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Gargantuavis, a prehistoric bird of France. Wikimedia Commons

Two decades ago, if you were taking bets on the most likely prehistoric animal to be discovered in France, a flightless, six-foot tall predatory bird would not have commanded short odds. The amazing thing about Gargantuavis is that it coexisted with the numerous raptors and tyrannosaurs of late Cretaceous Europe, and likely subsisted on the same prey. (Some fossilized eggs that were once presumed to be laid by dinosaurs, like the titanosaur Hypselosaurus, have now been attributed to Gargantuavis.)

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Liopleurodon, a prehistoric marine reptile of France. Andrey Atuchin

One of the most fearsome marine reptiles that ever lived, the late Jurassic Liopleurodon measured up to 40 feet from head to tail and weighed in the neighborhood of 20 tons. However, this pliosaur was initially named on the basis of much slimmer fossil evidence: a handful of scattered teeth unearthed in northern France in the late 19th century. (Oddly, one of these teeth was initially assigned to Poekilopleuron, a completely unrelated theropod dinosaur.)

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Plateosaurus, a dinosaur of France. Wikimedia Commons

As with the Auroch (see slide #4), the remains of Plateosaurus have been discovered all over Europe--and in this case, France can't even claim priority, since the "type fossil" of this prosauropod dinosaur was unearthed in neighboring Germany in the early 19th century. Still, French fossil specimens have shed valuable light on the appearance and habits of this late Triassic plant-eater, which was distantly ancestral to the giant sauropods of the ensuing Jurassic period.

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Pyroraptor, a dinosaur of France. Wikimedia Commons

Its name, Greek for "fire thief," makes Pyroraptor sound like one of Daenarys Targaryen's dragons from Game of Thrones. In fact, this dinosaur came by its name in much more prosaic fashion: its scattered bones were discovered in 1992 in the wake of a forest fire in Provence, in the south of France. Like its fellow raptors of the late Cretaceous period, Pyroraptor had single, curved, dangerous-looking claws on each of its hind feet, and it was probably covered head to toe in feathers.