The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Spain

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These Dinosaurs and Mammals Ruled Prehistoric Spain

Nuralagus, a prehistoric rabbit of Spain. Wikimedia Commons

During the Mesozoic Era, the Iberian peninsula of western Europe was in much closer proximity to North America than it is today--which is why so many of the dinosaurs (and prehistoric mammals) discovered in Spain have their counterparts in the New World. Here, in alphabetical order, is a slideshow of Spain's most notable dinosaurs and prehistoric animals, ranging from Agriarctos to Pierolapithecus.

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Agriarctos, a prehistoric mammal of Spain. Government of Spain

You probably didn't expect the distant ancestor of the Panda Bear to hail from Spain, of all places, but that's exactly where the remains of Agriarctos, aka the Dirt Bear, were recently discovered. Befitting an ancestral Panda of the Miocene epoch (about 11 million years ago), Agriarctos was relatively svelte compared to its more famous descendant of eastern Asia--only about four feet long and 100 pounds--and it probably spent most of its day high up in the branches of trees.

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Aragosaurus, a dinosaur of Spain. Sergio Perez

About 140 million years ago, give or take a few million years, sauropods began their slow evolutionary transition into titanosaurs--the gigantic, lightly armored, plant-munching dinosaurs that spread to every continent on earth. The importance of Aragosaurus (named after the Aragon region of Spain) is that it was one of the last classic sauropods of early Cretaceous western Europe, and, just possibly, directly ancestral to the first titanosaurs that succeeded it.

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Arenysaurus, a dinosaur of Spain. Wikimedia Commons

It sounds like the plot of a heartwarming family film: the entire population of a small Spanish community helps a team of paleontologists unearth a dinosaur fossil. That's exactly what happened in Aren, a town in the Spanish Pyrenees, where the late Cretaceous duck-billed dinosaur Arenysaurus was discovered in 2009. Rather than sell the fossil to Madrid or Barcelona, the town's inhabitants erected their own small museum, where you can visit this 20-foot-long hadrosaur today.

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Delapparentia, a dinosaur of Spain. Nobu Tamura

When the "type fossil" of Delapparentia was unearthed in Spain over 50 years ago, this 27-foot-long, five-ton dinosaur was classified as a species of Iguanodon, not an uncommon fate for a poorly attested ornithopod from western Europe. It was only in 2011 that this gentle but ungainly-looking plant-eater was rescued from obscurity and named after the French paleontologist who discovered it, Albert-Felix de Lapparent.

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Demandasaurus, a dinosaur of Spain. Nobu Tamura

It may sound like the punchline to a bad joke--"What kind of dinosaur won't take no for an answer?"--but Demandasaurus was actually named after Spain's Sierra la Demanda formation, where it was discovered around 2011. Like Aragosaurus (see slide #3), Demandasaurus was an early Cretaceous sauropod that only preceded its titanosaur descendants by a few million years; it seems to have been most closely related to the North American Diplodocus.

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Europelta, a dinosaur of Spain. Andrey Atuchin

A type of armored dinosaur known as a nodosaur, and technically part of the ankylosaur family, Europelta was a squat, prickly, two-ton plant-eater that evaded the depredations of theropod dinosaurs by flopping onto its belly and pretending to a be a rock. It's also the earliest identified nodosaur in the fossil record, dating back100 million years, and it was distinctive enough from its North American counterparts to signify that it evolved on one of the numerous islands dotting middle Cretaceous Spain.

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Iberomesornis, a prehistoric bird of Spain. Wikimedia Commons

Not a dinosaur at all, but a prehistoric bird of the early Cretaceous period, Iberomesornis was about the size of a hummingbird (eight inches long and a couple of ounces) and probably subsisted on insects. Unlike modern birds, Ibermesornis possessed a full set of teeth and single claws on each of its wings--evolutionary artifacts bestowed by its distant reptilian ancestors--and it appears to have left no direct living descendants in the modern bird family.

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Nuralagus, a prehistoric mammal of Spain. Nobu Tamura

Otherwise known as the Rabbit King of Minorca (a small island off the coast of Spain), Nuralagus was a megafauna mammal of the Pliocene epoch that weighed up to 25 pounds, or five times as much as the largest rabbits alive today. As such, it was a good example of the phenomenon known as "insular gigantism," in which otherwise meek mammals confined to island habitats (where predators are in short supply) tend to evolve to unusually large sizes.

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Pelecanimimus, a dinosaur of Spain. Sergio Perez

One of the earliest identified ornithomimid ("bird mimic") dinosaurs, Pelecanimimus possessed the most teeth of any known theropod dinosaur--over 200, making it toothier even than its distant cousin, Tyrannosaurus Rex. This dinosaur was discovered in Spain's Las Hoyas formation in the early 1990's, in sediments dating to the early Cretaceous period; it seems to have been most closely related to the much less dentitious Harpymimus of central Asia.

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Pierolapithecus, a prehistoric primate of Spain. Wikimedia Commons

When the type fossil of Pierolapithecus was discovered in Spain in 2004, some over-eager paleontologists touted it as the ultimate ancestor of two important primate families, the great apes and the lesser apes. The trouble with this theory, as many scientists have since pointed out, is that great apes are associated with Africa, not western Europe--but it's conceivable that the Mediterranean Sea wasn't an insurmountable barrier to these primates during parts of the Miocene epoch.