The King of Italian Paleontology by Steve Brusatte
A Portrait of Fabio Marco Dalla Vecchia
by Steve Brusatte
Europe is considered the birthplace of paleontology. It was on this continent that the first dinosaur was named, the idea of extinction was formulated, and several of paleontology\'s early heroes lived and worked. Georges Cuvier, William Buckland, Richard Owen, and Gideon Mantell all hailed from Europe, as did Nopcsa, Stromer, and Piveteau.
However, when one thinks of European paleontology, the countries of England, France, and Germany immediately come to mind. Lost in all of this history is Italy, a country with a vast and diverse fossil record. One of the most prominent modern paleontologists is Fabio Marco Dalla Vecchia.
Dalla Vecchia first became interested in paleontology at the age of six, although dinosaurs were not his favorite as a child. Instead, young Fabio became interested in Silurian and Devonian fishes and trilobites, Permian amphibians and reptiles, and Eocene mammals. In fact, dinosaurs were about the only thing he was not interested in! However, this would soon change. As he grew older, Dalla Vecchia began to enjoy dinosaur movies, and at the age of eight watched a movie that would change his life. After watching this movie Dalla Vecchia began to read books on dinosaurs, and eventually eveloped quite an interest in the terrible lizards.
But, when Dalla Vecchia was a child, dinosaurs were unknown from Italy, and the rocks near Fabio\'s home were not of the right age to preserve dinosaurs. Instead, he enjoyed collecting Miocene shells, while still continuing to read about dinosaurs. Unbeknownst to Dalla Vecchia, the first large dinosaur track site discovered in Italy, and one of the first records of dinosaurs in the country, was discovered later in 1990, some 45 kilometers from where Fabio lived the first nine years of his life.
Dalla Vecchia\'s life took a dramatic turn when he was 12, in 1976. In this year a large earthquake destroyed the area where Dalla Vecchia lived, killing over 1,000 people. Although this earthquake was a terror for the residents of his hometown, the tremor pushed Fabio towards a career in geology. A later visit to the British Museum of Natural History in London in 1981 persuaded him to pursue a career in paleontology. However, when he entered the University of Bologna two years later, Fabio settled for geology, as paleontology was not offered, but continued his interest and readings in fossils.
Nearing graduation, Dalla Vecchia was uncertain about his future, and was torn between specializing in biostratigraphy a career with a better chance of employment, or pure paleontology, a career with virtually no prospect of finding a job. In the autumn of 1982 an unexpected discovery changed Dalla Vecchia\'s life, and pushed him towards paleontology. This discovery, the holotype of the Triassic pterosaur Preondactylus, intrigued Dalla Vecchia, and persuaded him to write his dissertation on the sedimentology, stratigraphy, and paleontology of the formation in which the pterosaur was collected.
While conducting fieldwork related to the dissertation, Dalla Vecchia discovered a ball-like assemblage of crushed pterosaur bones that turned out to be a fossilized gastric eject. This find only intrigued him more, and after graduation Dalla Vecchia decided to pursue a Ph.D. on Triassic pterosaurs. Dalla Vecchia\'s work on pterosaurs was well-received by the paleontological community, and resulted in several new discoveries and papers. What makes his work interesting is that the oldest known pterosaurs are found in Italy, and although they are quite old, these Italian pterosaurs are not transitional specimens. They are full, complete pterosaurs, specimens which have given new insights into the study of pterosaur origins.
Although the species, which are primarily known from the Alps of Northern Italy vary, most specimens have shorter wings than later forms. Despite these short wings, Dalla Vecchia believes the Italian pterosaurs to have been adept fliers, capable of gliding over open water to catch fish. One of these pterosaurs, Eudimorphodon, was unearthed near Bergamo, Italy in 1973.
Currently housed in the Civic Museum of Natural Science in Bergamo, this 215-million-year-old specimen is unique in that several fish scales are preserved in its abdominal region, direct proof that this species ate fish. Dalla Vecchia\'s cohort, German paleontologist Rupert Wild, believes that Eudimorphodon caught its prey much like brown pelicans do today-dive bombing under the water to grab the fish.
While pterosaurs provided Dalla Vecchia with plenty to study, he still longed to discover dinosaurs, the creatures which had jumped into his heart as a child. His dream became a reality in 1993, when volunteers from the Museum of Monfalcone, about 50 kilometers from Dalla Vecchia\'s home, showed him a vertebra collected from the Lower Cretaceous rocks of Istria.
It was discovered near the town of Valle/Bale, less than 100 kilometers southeast of Monfalcone. Upon looking at the specimen, Dalla Vecchia recognized it as a caudal centrum of a dinosaur, and it came from less than 150 kilometers from his home! As it turned out, more bones had been collected by amateur Dario Boscarolli who discovered the site in the 1990\'s, and were the subject of a preliminary publication, which was already submitted to Natura Nascosta, the Bulletin of the Museum. Dalla Vecchia obtained access to the specimens, which he began to study in detail.
Among the specimens he recognized a crushed but complete cervical vertebra and many other sauropod bones. He then published a description of the most important specimens, including a nearly complete posterior dorsal vertebra, which is the holotype of the sauropod Histriasaurus boscarolli. Unfortunately, the cervical vertebra was later seriously damaged when sent back to the authorities of Valle/Bale. The holotype is currently part of a traveling exhibit, which is touring Italy and nearby countries.
Regardless, the Monfalcone specimens pushed Dalla Vecchia to complete a post-doc on the dinosaurs of the Adriatic region, mainly Istria, a peninsula that now mostly belongs to the new Republic of Croatia. His study also received Dalla Vecchia the position of curator of the Museum of Monfalcone, and enabled him to obtain a grant from the Dinosaur Society in 1995 to continue fieldwork and study. Later, in 1998, Dalla Vecchia was hired by the Ministry of Cultural and Environmental Goods to direct field work in the Villaggio del Pescatore site, and to do a preliminary study of the Late Cretaceous dinosaurs and crocodiles found there.
While conducting fieldwork in the Villaggio del Pescatore, Dalla Vecchia\'s team excavated the remains of a complete and well-preserved hadrosaur, now nicknamed \"Antonio,\" which had been discovered in 1994. Dalla Vecchia wrote a preliminary report on Antonio, and to date has also authored seven papers on pterosaurs, 12 on dinosaurs, plus several others on other Mesozoic reptiles. Of all his work, though, it has been the discovery of Antonio which has brought Dalla Vecchia the most fame, and the most heartache. However, Dalla Vecchia himself did not discover the specimen nor the site. Instead, that honor goes to Alceo Tarlao and Giorgio Rimoli, two amateur paleontologists who came across the Villaggio del Pescatore site in the 1980\'s.
The specimen itself was found by Tiziana Brazzatti, a student who began exploring the site between 1993 and 1994. She found the right manus, mostly weathered away, which was exposed on a limestone slab cropping out of a hillside. The slab was excavated by the Museum of Natural History of Trieste, which gave the specimen to a private firm of fossil dealers for preparation. During preparation, the preparators discovered two articulate, complete forelimbs on the slab of rock containing the manus. It was then clear that the prosecution of the slab into the hillside contained a much more complete skeleton. Dalla Vecchia asked to study the specimen, but the competent Italian authorities told him to wait for an official decision.
Later, he asked for permission again, but never received a clear answer. In the meantime, the private firm of fossil dealers was appointed by the Ministry to do fieldwork at the site. They discovered a hadrosaur skull, complete but badly crushed, together with some other bones from the same skeleton. In 1998 the Ministry appropriated a sum of money to officially excavate the site and indicated Dalla Vecchia as the scientific director of the fieldwork. The goal of the fieldwork was to excavate the remaining part of Antonio. In order to do this, a huge portion of the limestone hillside had to be removed with mechanical tools. The specimen was finally extracted by the workers when Dalla Vecchia was absent from the site, due to his attending a symposium. The skeleton was partially damaged during excavation and some portions were subsequently reconstructed in resin.
Regardless, some 95 percent of Antonio is preserved (although some may actually be resin), which may give new insights into the osteology of European hadrosaurs if the specimen is ever properly studied. However, because no study has been conducted, the proper taxonomic position of the specimen is unknown. Dalla Vecchia believes that it belongs to Hadrosauridae sensu Weishampel et al. (1993). After his preliminary study done under Ministry appointment and after the complete preparation of the specimen by acids, he does believe it to be a new taxon in strict relation with Telmatosauru s, which he would like to name Timavia adriatica (after the subterranean Timavo River and the Adriatic Sea). But, this will remain impossible because the specimen will only be studied by other paleontologists recently indicated by the Ministry.
Dalla Vecchia does know that the specimen is about 85 million years old (Santonian age of the Cretaceous), quite older than all other European hadrosaurs, which are Maastrichtian in age.
Dalla Vecchia is also interested in sauropods, a group of dinosaurs he has been intrigued by since his chance study of the sauropod vertebra in 1993. Much of this work deals with the adaptations of sauropods to insular environments, a study which has been the topic of several of his papers. According to these papers, Adriatic dinosaurs in the Albian and Cenomanian were unusually small, half the linear size of sauropods coexisting in Texas.
Dalla Vecchia believes that the cause of this size difference is due to the fact that the Adriatic-Dinaric carbonate platform, the home of these small dinosaurs, became isolated because of tectonic and eustatic reasons during the Early Cretaceous. This isolation led to the small size of these sauropods, in analogy with the phenomenon of island dwarfism affecting Cenozoic mammals. Also the small size of Antonio, which is about 4-4.5 meters in length, smaller than most other hadrosaurs was due to insularity.
Dalla Vecchia has also conducted other paleobiogeographical studies. One of these studies revolves around the hypothesis that regions of southern Italy were joined with northern Africa during parts of the Early Cretaceous. Originally, based on geological and fossil evidence, paleontologists believed Italy to have been an archipelago of very small islands, much like Hawaii today, or even completely covered by a shallow sea, during the Cretaceous. However, the research team led by geologist Alfonso Bosellini, on which Dalla Vecchia is the only vertebrate paleontologist, does not agree with this hypothesis, and have formulated their own theory to account for Italy\'s Cretaceous position.
This hypothesis, based on footprint evidence discovered near San Giovanni Rotondo in southern Italy, states that the Puglia area of southern Italy was joined, by emergent land, with Africa during at least the first 30 million years of the Cretaceous. This makes sense, as Italy is technically part of the African plate, and only recently, geologically speaking, collided with Europe to \"become\" part of the continent. This collision created the Alps, a mountain range which is still growing and will continue to do so for some time.
Along with studying the San Giovanni Rotondo footprint site, Dalla Vecchia also has studied the footprints of sauropods at other sites. Results of these studies were published in 1994 and 1998. In his 1994 paper, Dalla Vecchia mentioned the discovery of a primitive sauropod, represented by footprints, discovered in the lower Jurassic of Trentino (Northern Italy).
A different footprint, likely late Hauterivian in age, was found in Friuli (Northeastern Italy), and could possibly belong to a brachiosaurid or more primitive sauropod. Other footprints, discovered in late Albian sediments in Istria, belong to a new ichnotaxon, Titanosaurimanus nana, named by Dalla Vecchia and Tarlao in a 2000 paper. These footprints likely represent a dwarf titanosaur.
Dalla Vecchia has also published several recent papers on non-dinosaur vertebrates of Italy, including ichthyosaurs, placodonts, nothosaurs, tanystropheids, and mammals. Some of the most intriguing of these finds are a cache of Late Triassic ichthyosaur bones, while Late Triassic placodonts and nothosaurs are common in Friuli. Recently, Cretaceous turtles have been reported from the Vicenza province of the Veneto region, although nobody is studying them.
In a 2000 paper Dalla Vecchia briefly discussed other vertebrates known from Italy, including rare Early Triassic fishes from the Dolomites, temnospondylian amphibians from the Alto Adige/Sud Tirol region, Triassic arboreal reptiles found in Lombardy and Friuli, Triassic coastal reptiles from Trentino and Friuli, and ichthyosaurs from the famous Ammonitico Rosso rock unit in the Veneto region.
However, many of these fossils are unknown to researchers outside of Italy. As Dalla Vecchia put it, \"I think that outside Italy this richness of vertebrates in Northern Italy is decidedly misunderstood.\" However, in recent years, the vertebrates of Italy have become known to the outside world largely because of the efforts of Dalla Vecchia. And, as he is not yet in his 40\'s, Dalla Vecchia should continue his research into the indefinite future.
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