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A long-forgotten continent once ruled by a bizarre cast of dinosaurs is hidden within North America, but only a handful of fossils have ever been discovered.

It was a typical warm, humid Late Cretaceous day. A strange, pallid mass floated above what is now New Jersey in the cobalt-blue waters of a shallow sea. It was a dead dinosaur, the bloated carcass of a monstrous 6.4m (21ft) Tyrannosaurus rex relative.

Dryptosaurus aquilunguis resembled its cousin in appearance, with an athletic frame and jaws full of flesh-ripping teeth, but with a bloodcurdling twist: on the ends of its stubby little arms were great, grasping “hands,” complete with an array of unwieldy eight-inch (20cm) talons. Its fingers were like meat hooks, and its teeth were like banana piercings. This ancient beast could encircle you while biting your head off.

The unusual dinosaur had taken its final steps slowly. Despite the fact that this was only the beginning of its adventures. Its body first slid into the nearby river, possibly after a flood, where it bobbed around, miraculously avoiding the attention of marauding crocodiles. It was eventually flushed out into an ancient inland sea. The fallen giant sank to the bottom as it decomposed. For the next 67 million years, its body parts would be safely interred in their silty crypt.

That is, until workers at the West Jersey Marl Company interrupted their peaceful sleep one summer day in 1866. They were digging up a seam of green, muddy rock to sell as fertiliser when they came across a collection of suspiciously large bones.

The fossils piqued the interest of a young zoologist named Edward Drinker Cope, a “dandyish character” with a luxurious moustache who would go on to discover many of North America’s most iconic dinosaurs. He quickly identified the remains in New Jersey, writing that they belonged to a “completely new gigantic carnivorous Dinosaurian!” Aside from that, it wasn’t immediately clear how unique the find was.

The Dryptosaurus remains are now housed in a small drawer at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Pennsylvania, a neat arrangement of crumbling vertebrae, jaw fragments, limb bones, and teeth. But it turns out that these few artefacts aren’t just the remains of a single person. They are also not the last physical evidence of its species. They are, in fact, among the last surviving remnants of an entire continent – a forgotten land of strange dinosaurs that most people have never heard of. How did this happen? And how did it feel?

A mystery history

A hidden past lies beneath North America. It was split in two for 27 million years during the Late Cretaceous period. The ancient continent of Laramidia lay to the west. Appalachia, a long-gone continent, lies to the east. The Western Interior Seaway, a shallow, predator-infested sea, lay between them. It felt almost like a warm bath at times, but with crocodiles, sharks, and the gaping mouths of 18m- (59ft)-long mosasaurs.

In terms of dinosaurs, the two halves might as well have existed on different planets because they were so far apart. Despite being contemporaries, Dryptosaurus would never have fought a T. rex or ripped the flesh from a triceratops. or fled from a brontosaurus’ flattening feet.

Laramidia’s last relics can still be found in rock layers ranging from the otherworldly, cacti-filled landscapes of the Mexican desert to the frigid oilfields of western Alaska. In the east, the last traces of Appalachia can be found under a region that stretches from Mississippi’s cypress swamps to Manitoba’s arctic tundra around Hudson Bay.

Despite this, only one of these landmasses’ prehistoric inhabitants has dominated popular imagination.

Laramidia has yielded the vast majority of the dinosaurs we are familiar with over the last century and a half, including at least 32 near-complete T. rexes, herds of Triceratops, bones from around 80 stegosaurs, and an Alamosaurus that weighed as much as a small commercial aircraft. In fact, dinosaurs from this western continent are almost entirely represented in America’s natural history museums.

Appalachia, like Laramidia, was teeming with feathery, scaly, and armoured giants. They are, however, virtually absent from public displays, and they are not represented in documentaries, Hollywood films, or children’s toyboxes.

Appalachia, in contrast to its western counterpart, left few traces. People have been looking for 169 years or so. It only yielded a few crumbling partial dinosaur specimens and a handful of bones and teeth. In fact, almost all of the continent’s prehistoric wildlife has vanished from the fossil record.

Until recently, these enigmatic eastern beasts – and the land they inhabited – were so obscure that palaeontologists rarely even discussed them.

Now, thanks to a few new discoveries and renewed interest in the scant remains unearthed in the past, a picture of a lost world is emerging – a subtly muddled rendering of the usual vision of prehistoric North America. This was a place where giant, cow-like hadrosaurs, scythe-handed tyrannosaurs, towering dino-ostriches, and heavyset, reptilian “armadillos” coexisted with compact, pony-sized triceratops relatives.

In short, the familiar dinosaur cast that we all know and love is only half the story.

A strong start

The grave of a long-dead resident can be found in the small town of Haddonfield, New Jersey, at the end of a quiet suburban street. Houses give way to a muddy forest patch with a stone-mounted memorial plaque. A small depression in the clay can be found a few hundred feet below, in a deep, vine-covered ravine. This is where the body was discovered.

In 1830, a farmer was digging for mineral-rich marl in this small pit when he discovered a collection of massive bones that resembled vertebrae. It was a once-in-a-lifetime find, but he wouldn’t realise it until he was old.

In fact, collectors like Mary Anning had already begun to unearth the bones of ancient marine reptiles. Dinosaurs, like plesiosaurs, did not yet have a name and would not get one for another decade. Their remains were frequently associated with mythological beasts or explained away as unusually large specimens of ordinary animals at the time. Sioux Native Americans believed they belonged to monsters destroyed by thunder spirits, while European scientists previously mistook them for elephant or large reptile bones. To make matters even more complicated, no dinosaur had ever been discovered in the United States.

Naturally, the farmer thought of the fossils only as minor curiosity. He brought them home and hid them. They stayed there for 28 years, only being brought out to impress visitors. Some were even casually distributed.

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