What we Know About Dinosaurs will Probably Change

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Everything we know about dinosaurs is connected to fossil records and, if the last decade is anything to go by, all of that could change dramatically over the next 20 years.

Much of what we know about dinosaurs is nascent by nature. It's difficult to study something that's been buried in the ground for 65 million years, right?

But a recent study from scientists at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London has put some numbers behind our collective acquired knowledge of dinosaurs. It appears that much of what we know about dinosaurs could potentially change over the next 20 years.

The science is simple. Everything we know about dinosaurs is essentially derived from the fossil record. And over the last ten years there has been a dramatic increase in additions to that fossil record. In layman's terms: we're discovering more dinosaurs at rapid rate, which means we're constantly acquiring new, concrete examples of how dinosaurs actually lived.

Just take a look at this handy graph.


More dinosaur findings equals more knowledge, equals a better, broader understanding of how the scientific community understands dinosaurs as a whole.

In a blog post Jonathan P. Tennant tried to explain his findings.

"This has profound impacts on our understanding of dinosaur diversity, especially as these discoveries are unevenly spread over time and space," he wrote. "There are still huge gaps in our knowledge of the fossil record, and areas in space and geological time where the rapid pace of discovery is changing much of what we thought we knew about dinosaurs." 


Paleontologists Find First Placodont Fossil in the Algarve

Friday, February 23, 2018

Paleontologists from Lisbon’s Universidade Nova have found the first placodont fossils in Portugal, they have announced.

Paleontologist Hugo Campos and Octávio Mateus told Lusa that they found the placodont “ribs and a Shell” in 2016, but only now disclosed the discovery by publishing a study in the catalogue for an exhibition “Loulé: Territories. Memories. Identities”, on display at the National Archeology Museum.

“Placodonts are a group of marine reptiles that had not been identified in Portugal, but are known in other parts of the world”, said Octávio Mateus, who supervised Hugo Campos’s paleontology Master’s thesis about Triassic vertebrates in the Algarve.

The study “Loulé more than 220 million years ago: the fossil vertebrates of the Algarve in the Triassic”, published now, describes that the placodonts lived in the sea during the Triassic period between 250 million and 200 million years ago, feeding on mollusks and they had boney plates that made them look a bit like turtles.

A large number of these boney plates, which the scientists call ‘osteoderms’, were found around Loulé and Silves in the Algarve in 2016 and 2017.

The researchers believe that these placodonts were of the ‘Henodus’ type because of the long, flat, hexagonal shape and without ornamentation of the shell and the lack of teeth.

The village of Penina, near Loulé, has what is considered to be the main deposit from the upper Triassic in Portugal and one of the most important for vertebrate paleontology in the country.

The deposit has turned up ten ‘Metoposaurus algarvensis’ (an amphibian similar to a salamander), bivalves and fish scales, phytosaurs (similar to crocodiles) and placodonts, but there may be as many as 20 animals.

The Triassic period, the first period of the Mezoic era, was a period in history when the continents were still all jo9ined together in a super-continent (Pangeia) and when the dinosaurs and other animals appeared and spread round the world.



China's Dinosaur County Restores 813 Fossils

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Protoceratops and Velociraptor

China's dinosaur county, Jiayin, in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province has restored a total of 813 dinosaur fossils since 1902.

A 15 meter long, 6 meter tall dinosaur skeleton will be pieced this year, according to Shen Fengbin, director of the research department of Jiayin Shenzhou Dinosaur Museum.

So far, more than 10 species of dinosaur fossils have been found in Jiayin and places nearby, said Shen.

Jiayin is in the north of Heilongjiang Province. Hundreds of dinosaur skeletons are believed to be buried underground.



Prehistoric Rainforest Collapse Dramatically Changed the Course of Evolution

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Artist's recreation of Dimetrodon in its habitat | Simon Stalenhag

The collapse of rainforests during the Carboniferous period 300 million years ago triggered great changes in the evolutionary paths of plants and animals.

It is estimated that more than 150 acres of rainforest are lost each minute of every day, totaling some 78 million acres of loss annually. Should this current rate of tropical deforestation continue, NASA's Earth Observatory projects that rainforests will vanish within a century, "causing unknown effects on global climate and eliminating the majority of plant and animal species on the planet."

Although the present level of human-caused deforestation is unprecedented, this is not the first time that rainforests have dramatically shrunk in size. Tropical rainforests collapsed around 307 million years ago, toward the end of the Carboniferous period (359–299 million years ago).

New research on this prehistoric rainforest collapse, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, finds that it forever changed the course of evolution for terrestrial species, with effects still felt today.

"There have been several studies over the last 40 years on how diversity has changed through time, but it is only in the last few years that researchers have begun to acknowledge the limitations of fossil data," lead author Emma Dunne of the University of Birmingham told Seeker.

She added, "Newly developed methods have been allowing researchers to look for genuine patterns of diversity amongst this patchy fossil data, and we thought it was time to look more closely at diversity patterns of the first vertebrates to live on land."

A key source of information for Dunne and her colleagues is the ever-growing Paleobiology Database, which is the largest international collaborative project among paleontologists all over the world. It has already supported more than 300 papers and is being used now more than ever by scientists.

Throughout her work on the new study, Dunne actually updated, and added to, the database's information on early tetrapods: vertebrates with two pairs of limbs, including those that lost one or both pairs over evolutionary time, such as whales and snakes.

Around 310 million years ago, before the early rainforest collapse, North America and Europe were part of a single landmass located at the equator. There, dense tropical rainforests flourished. This was at a time before the first dinosaurs and mammals evolved.

The ample vegetation and warm, humid climate supported amphibian-like early tetrapods, which quickly diversified into many different species. Giant dragonflies, millipedes, the first amniotes — egg-producing animals that lay them on land or within the mother — and even early cockroaches were also around then.

But the tropical paradise began to change.

"Carbon dioxide levels dropped in the late Carboniferous, and this led to the cooling and drying of the climate," Dunne explained.

Artist's recreation of a forest during the Carboniferous period |Mark Ryan

The event proved to be catastrophic to plants, and rainforests began to disappear. What happened to animals has been debated for many decades.

A prevailing theory has been that tetrapod diversity reduced markedly before endemism occurred. Endemism refers to species evolving in defined geographic locations, such as on an island, in a particular country, or in some other defined zone. In short, the species are basically confined to a certain place where they evolve to live.


Flowering Plants Originated Between 149 and 256 Million Years Ago, Researchers Say

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Flowering plants likely originated between 149 million years ago (Jurassic period) and 256 million years ago (Permian period). Image credit: Ilona Ilyés.

Angiosperms (flowering plants) are neither as old as suggested by previous molecular studies, nor as young as a literal interpretation of their fossil record, according to new research.

“The discrepancy between estimates of angiosperm evolution from molecular data and fossil records has caused much debate,” said co-author Dr. Jose Barba-Montoya, of University College London.

“Even Darwin described the origin of this group as an ‘abominable mystery’.”

“To uncover the key to solving the mystery of when flowers originated, we carefully analyzed the genetic make-up of flowering plants, and the rate at which mutations accumulate in their genomes.”

Through the lens of the fossil record, angiosperms appear to have diversified suddenly, precipitating a Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution in which pollinators, herbivores and predators underwent explosive co-evolution.

Molecular-clock dating studies, however, have suggested a much older origin for angiosperms, implying a cryptic evolution of flowers that is not documented in the fossil record.

“In large part, the discrepancy between these two approaches is an artifact of false precision on both paleontological and molecular evolutionary timescales,” said co-lead author Professor Philip Donoghue, from the University of Bristol.

Paleontological timescales calibrate the family tree of plants to geological time based on the oldest fossil evidence for its component branches.

Molecular timescales build on this approach, using additional evidence from genomes for the genetic distances between species, aiming to overcome gaps in the fossil record.

“Previous studies into molecular timescales failed to explore the implications of experimental variables and so they inaccurately estimate the probable age of flowering plants with undue precision,” said co-lead author Professor Ziheng Yang, of University College London.

“Similarly, interpretations of the fossil record have not fully recognized its shortcomings as an archive of evolutionary history, that is, that the oldest fossil evidence of angiosperms comes from very advanced, not primitive flowering plant lineages,” Professor Donoghue said.

The team compiled a large collection of genetic data for many angiosperm groups including a dataset of 83 genes from 644 taxa, together with a comprehensive set of fossil evidence to address the timescale of angiosperm diversification.

“By using Bayesian statistical methods that borrow tools from physics and mathematics to model how the evolutionary rate changes with time, we showed that there are broad uncertainties in the estimates of flowering plant age, all compatible with early to mid-Cretaceous origin for the group,” said co-author Dr. Mario dos Reis, from Queen Mary University of London.

This research was presented in a paper published in the journal New Phytologist on February 5, 2018.


Jose Barba-Montoya et al. Constraining uncertainty in the timescale of angiosperm evolution and the veracity of a Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution. New Phytologist, published online February 5, 2018; doi: 10.1111/nph.15011



New Study Findings: Dinosaur-killing Asteroid Also Triggered Massive Magma Releases Beneath the Ocean

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Scientists Say Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Made Earth's Surface Act Like Liquid

The asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago appears to have caused huge amounts of magma to spew out of the bottom of the ocean, a new study of seafloor data finds.

The discovery, described in the journal Science Advances, adds to the portrait of an extinction event that was as complex as it was deadly.

For decades, researchers have pointed to a cataclysmic asteroid smashing into the planet as the reason the dinosaurs, and many other species of life on Earth, were wiped out during what's formally known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (named for the periods that came before and followed after it). That impact, which scientists think left the roughly 110-mile-wide Chicxulub crater in the Gulf of Mexico, would have vaporized living things nearby and sent choking clouds of debris into the air, obscuring the sun.

But scientists have also pointed to another culprit: the Deccan Traps in present-day India, one of the largest volcanic provinces in the world, which just happened to be going gangbusters at the time of the extinction event. The ash and noxious gases from the Deccan Traps are really what killed the dinosaurs, some scientists say, downplaying the asteroid's role.

"People still argue about which one was actually the primary driver of environmental changes that resulted in the death of dinosaurs," said senior author Leif Karlstrom, an earth scientist at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Researchers have also suggested that perhaps the two were connected — perhaps the asteroid triggered Deccan Trap volcanism, producing a brutal one-two punch that ultimately knocked out roughly three-quarters of the Earth's plant and animal species. But recent work has shown that the traps started spewing roughly a quarter-million years before the asteroid hit, Karlstrom said.

Still, scientists have wondered if there might indeed be some kind of connection between the two. And lead author Joseph Byrnes, a geophysicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, realized something: If the asteroid impact had had a major impact on volcanism at the time, that effect should have shown up in the activity along the Earth's mid-ocean ridges. So he and Karlstrom went looking for it.

The mid-ocean ridges are long cracks in the Earth's crust at the bottom of the ocean floor where tectonic plates meet. As the plates pull apart, hot magma rises up between them, flowing out on either side of the crack before cooling, creating new seafloor in the process. With more than 40,000 miles of ridges, this network of cracks forms the longest mountain chain on Earth.

This graph shows a spike in the creation of new seafloor about 66 million years ago. That's when the Chicxulub asteroid struck the Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs. The impact also instigated the release of massive amounts of magma, a new study argues. (Byrnes and Karlstrom / Science Advances)

The youngest rock is always right at the ridge (where fresh magma keeps producing new rock) and gets older the farther away it is from the ridge on either side. And scientists can date the age accurately thanks to the Earth's magnetic field, which reverses itself every so often, as it has throughout the planet's history. That magnetic polarity gets locked into a newly formed rock as it cools and solidifies. By tracking the sequence of polarity flips in the rock near these ridges, researchers are able to tell how old a given section of the seafloor must be.

The two scientists used this data compiled by other researchers and combined it with another data set showing the gravitational field of the surface beneath the ocean. The stronger the gravitational field in a given spot, the more mass there is. (It's a substitute for actually being able to see the surface topography of the ocean floor, much of which still remains a mystery, the researchers pointed out.)

"We have a topographic map of the Earth's surface and we have topographic maps of Mars and Venus, but we don't have that for the ocean floor," Byrnes said. "We have it for places where people have taken ships, but it would take something like 900 years to survey the whole ocean floor. It's just too resource-intensive — so we have to use the gravitational anomalies as a proxy."

Sure enough, the scientists found that at the time the asteroid hit the Earth, there was a sudden surge in the magma pouring out of these mid-ocean ridges, which put out on the order of a hundred thousand to a million cubic kilometers of volcanic material. That's not too far behind the estimated several million cubic kilometers or so of magma produced by the Deccan Traps.

It's possible that the powerful seismic waves produced by the impact triggered the release of reservoirs of magma beneath the surface, Karlstrom said. And if it affected the mid-ocean ridges this way, it could have played a similar role in the Deccan Traps, triggering even more volcanism than before.

The mid-ocean ridges, then, could be a bellwether for a similar phenomenon occurring in the already-active Deccan Traps.

But did that marine magma release do any damage of its own? While it's unclear whether this extra load of ocean floor magma worsened the extinction event, it could potentially have played a role by further acidifying the oceans. Previous work indicates that marine species that were more sensitive to ocean acidification were worse hit by the extinction event. But probing that possibility will take more research, the scientists added.

"That's what we need to work on next, I would say: trying to tease out what the effects on the environment were of the volcanic activity," Byrnes said.

Colored and black points mark portions of the seafloor that may have spread faster than usual as a result of the impact of the Chicxulub asteroid. (Byrnes and Karlstrom / Science Advances)


Landmark Dinosaur Discovery in Egypt Could be Tip For Other Desert Finds

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hesham Sallam, head of Mansoura university's Center for Vertebrate Paleontology, displays bones of a Cretaceous period dinosaur in Mansoura, Egypt. The new species of long-necked herbivore is around the size of a city bus and could be just the tip of the iceberg of other finds.  (AMR NABIL / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“As in any ecosystem, if we went to the jungle we’ll find a lion and a giraffe. So we found the giraffe, where’s the lion?” said Hesham Sallam, the leader of the excavation team.

A skeleton has been unearthed in Egypt’s Western Desert, whose ancient sands have long helped preserve remains, but unlike most finds this one isn’t a mummy — it’s a dinosaur.

Researchers from Mansoura University in the country’s Nile Delta discovered the new species of long-necked herbivore, which is around the size of a city bus, and it could be just the tip of the sand dune for other desert dinosaur discoveries.

“As in any ecosystem, if we went to the jungle we’ll find a lion and a giraffe. So we found the giraffe, where’s the lion?” said Hesham Sallam, leader of the excavation team and head of the university’s Center for Vertebrate Paleontology.

Sallam, along with four Egyptian and five American researchers, authored an article in the journal “Nature Ecology & Evolution” published Jan. 29 announcing the discovery.

Researchers don?t know how Mansourasaurus lived and died, except for the fact that it was a plant eater.  (AMR NABIL / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Experts say the find is a landmark one that could shed light on a particularly obscure period of history for the African continent, roughly the 30 million years before dinosaurs went extinct, between 70 and 80 million years ago.

Named “Mansourasaurus shahinae” after the team’s university and for one of the paleontology department’s founders, the find is the only dinosaur from that period to have been discovered in Africa, and it may even be an undiscovered genus.

In the article the authors say the team’s findings “counter hypotheses that dinosaur faunas of the African mainland were completely isolated” during the late Mesozoic period. That is, previous theories were that Africa’s dinosaurs during that time existed as if on an island and developed independently from their northern cousins.

But Mansourasaurus’ fossilized skeletal remains suggest an anatomy not very different from those discovered in Europe from the same period, an indication that a land connection between Africa and its northern neighbour may have existed.

The news was welcomed by other paleontologists, who now see the desert to the west of the Nile as fertile ground for new information about the Earth’s former residents.

Kristi Curry Rogers, an associate professor of geology and biology at Macalester College who specializes in large long-necked dinosaurs like the Mansourasaurus, said Tuesday that the find’s strong pronounced chin and other unique anatomical quirks will help piece together the evolutionary history of dinosaurs in Africa once more fossils have been found to compare it with.

“This highlights how much there is left out there to discover,” she wrote by email. “And I’m excited that people like Dr. Sallam and colleagues are on the ground searching for fossils.”

While Egypt has a long history of archeology, paleontology has not enjoyed the same popularity — or had the same success.

In 1911, the German paleontologist Ernst Stromer led an exhibition to the oasis of Bahriya, also in Egypt’s Western Desert. There, he discovered four species of dinosaurs, including a predatory type known as the Spinosaurus, all from the Cretaceous period. But all of his findings were later lost in Allied bombing of the Munich Museum during World War II.

There?s no indication whether the Mansourasaurus lived alone or in a herd.  (AMR NABIL / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Sallam said researchers don’t know how Mansourasaurus lived and died, except for the fact that it was a plant eater. There’s no indication whether it lived alone or in a herd.

The bones bear a resemblance to another dinosaur discovery in Egypt, that of the Paralititan Stromeri, excavated by an American team from the University of Pennsylvania, whose findings were published in 2001. Both were long-necked herbivores grazers, but the Paralititan Stromeri was much larger. It was among the largest known dinosaurs, weighing in at 75 tons and over 30 metres long.

The Mansourasaurus’ smaller size is more typical of the Mesozoic era, when dinosaurs’ time was running out, geologically speaking, according to Sallam. With a long neck and tail, his torso would’ve been similar to that of an African elephant and measuring tip-to-tale over 10 metres and weighing several tons.

The Western Desert would have more closely resembled a coastal jungle during the dinosaur’s lifetime, with half of what is the country today under water.

Finding the dinosaur remains in the vast desert was the product of back-breaking work. The team scoured the area of the find more than 750 kilometres southwest of the capital for five years before they found the partial skeleton of the Mansourasaurus in 2013.

Sallam said he and a group of doctoral and master’s degree students were heading to give a lecture at a local university when they stumbled on a desert road with the appropriate geological outcroppings that they hadn’t noticed before. The next morning, the team returned to survey it, covering an area of several kilometres. It wasn’t long after they started that one of the students called him on the phone, saying that he should come see the number of bones she’d found.

Sallam said he knew from the first small piece of fossil he was shown that it was a big deal.

“When I first saw it I told them, if this comes out as I expect, your names will go down in history,” he told his students.

There is now some hope the discovery could bring more funding for the paleontology field in Egypt and financing for ongoing studies, Sallam said.

But he said he’s most proud of making science real for people who otherwise aren’t exposed to it as much.

“I mean, we’ve made the average Egyptian man, or the Arab man, talk about dinosaurs,” he said.




Chimerarachne yingi: Spider-like Arachnid With a Tail Sheds New Light on Origin of Spiders

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The new animal resembles a spider in having fangs, male pedipalps, four walking legs and silk-producing spinnerets but also bears a long flagellum or tail. Credit: Dinghua Yang

Paleontologists have identified an ancient and peculiar spider-like arachnid with a whip-like tail. Although this 100-million-year-old creature has eight legs, fangs, and could spin silk, it was not a spider, but rather a relative that lived alongside spiders. Scientists believe that the ancient species may resolve many loose ends in arachnid evolution.

Specimens belonging to the newly identified species called Chimerarachne yingi were collected from the amber markets of Myanmar, where paleontologists have time and time again come across invaluable fossils. Amber is nature’s time capsule, providing a glimpse of whatever plants or animals became trapped in resin before it fossilized. What’s amazing is that the amber process preserves parts that wouldn’t be conserved through regular fossilization. This is why scientists have been able to find, for instance, things like ticks dining on the feathers of dinosaurs, insects during a courtship dance, 30-million-year-old pristine-looking flowers, or even the oldest mammal blood still preserved in a chubby, 30-million-year-old tick.

“There’s been a lot of amber being produced from northern Myanmar and its interest stepped up about ten years ago when it was discovered this amber was mid-Cretaceous; therefore, all the insects found in it were much older than first thought,” said co-author Paul Selden, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas. “It’s been coming into China where dealers have been selling to research institutions. These specimens became available last year to Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology.”

The C. yingi amber fossils are exquisitely preserved, allowing two different teams of researchers to identify the creature’s morphological features in striking details.

The dorsal view of entire Chimerarachne yingi specimen. Note the long tail-like appendage. Credit: University of Kansas.

Very much like today’s black widows and huntsman spiders, C. yingi had silk-producing spinnerets. And like modern spiders (the Araneae),  C. yingi males had two modified appendages called pedipalps near the head which were used to inseminate females. Unlike the Araneae, however, these creatures possessed a long tail, similar to those of modern scorpions.

It’s this peculiar feature that led the researchers to suspect that C. yingi belongs to a long-extinct arachnid order, known as the Uraraneida, which are differentiated by their tail-like appendage called a telson. Another distinctive feature is that uraraneids had plates on their bellies instead of the squishy abdomens seen in spiders.

These are tiny arachnids, measured about 2.5 millimeters body length, excluding the nearly 3-millimeter-long tail. Selden says the flagelliform appendage acted like a sort of antenna, allowing the creature to sense the environment.

But it’s not entirely certain that C. yingi is a Uraraneid, judging from the silk-producing organs which were more similar to those of modern spiders. The 100-million-year-old spider-like creature may actually belong to its own branch of the evolutionary tree, positioned between spiders and uraraneids. A rather unexpected way scientists could confirm this hunch is by discovering some of C. yingi‘s tailed descendents in the jungle.

“We know a lot about the Burmese biota during the Cretaceous,” he said. “It was a pretty good tropical rainforest, and there are a great many other arachnids we know were there, particularly spiders, that are very similar to the ones you find today in the southeast Asian rainforest. It makes us wonder if these may still be alive today. We haven’t found them, but some of these forests aren’t that well-studied, and it’s only a tiny creature.”

The two studies were published the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.


Tulsa Researcher Unlocking Prehistoric Mystery of the Tyrannosaurus rex

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

People have been fascinated by dinosaurs since their first bones were found some 2,000 years ago.

OSU Paleontologist Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard shares that fascination every day in her lab at the OSU Center for Health Sciences. She’s measuring the growth of the Tyrannosaurus rex, because no one is sure how large the dinosaur could get.

It starts with a tile saw like you'd buy at Home Depot. Very thin slices of T. rex leg bone are polished so they can be examined under a microscope.

She studies their growth curves like you would age a tree.

Woodward Ballard said, "The tissue is a circular pattern, kind of one after the other. So that’s what we count to see how old this animal is when it died."

The T. rex gets a lot of attention because they may have been the most frightening creature to ever walk the planet. But Woodward Ballard will tell you they're even more interesting as you really get to know them.

She said, "It’s just a huge overgrown chicken basically. It’s just this giant bird with teeth is what it looks like to me."

It’s a bird that could rip off hundreds of pounds of meat with a single bite. While some scientists theorize that T. rex was a slow scavenger, she doesn't necessarily agree.

Woodward Ballard said, "The thing you have to remember is the stride length of that thing. It would only have to take a few steps and you could be running flat out and it could catch you."

She is very enthusiastic about her work in the lab and hunting for dinosaurs in the summer.

"It died, it was fossilized, it was buried and you're the first person to put a hand on it. It's like reaching back 67 to 66 million years ago. It’s just so exciting."

So far, she's studied 19 T. rex leg bones with more to come. She says the famous T. rex skeleton, Sue, at the Field Museum in Chicago is one of the largest ever discovered. At the age of 28, Sue had grown to almost 41 feet and 12,000 pounds.

But Woodward Ballard has never studied the bone of a T. rex that had stopped growing. It may be that the world was so dangerous in the Cretaceous period, that growing to maturity was a very difficult challenge.


Local Fossil ID’d as Oldest Dinosaur From Utah

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Utah Geological Association’s journal Geology of the Intermountain West recently published an article by a team of three paleontologists that identified a pelvic fossil bone as the remains of the oldest dinosaur found in Utah. The small, meat-eating dinosaur is reconstructed in this image. [Image by Jeff Martz / Courtesy of John Foster]

A small fossil pelvis from the Moab area has been named the oldest identifiable dinosaur fossil bone ever found in Utah.

The collaborative efforts of three paleontologists – Xavier Jenkins with Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, John Foster with the Museum of Moab and Robert Gay with the Colorado Canyons Association – have resulted in an article published in the Utah Geological Association’s journal Geology of the Intermountain West that identifies this fossil from the Late Triassic Period (225–200 million years ago) as belonging to a small meat-eating dinosaur that roamed the area now known as Utah.

“The Triassic Period marks the beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs,” said Julia McHugh, Curator of Paleontology for the Museums of Western Colorado, where the fossil is curated. “This fossil helps give us a starting point for their evolution and diversity in the Triassic of Utah. This specimen is the oldest known dinosaur bone from Utah, and the first found from the Triassic Period. It helps to fill in some of the gap to show us that for sure some of the oldest dinosaurs were present in ancient Utah.”

The dinosaur fossil – a part of the pelvis consisting of fused vertebrae, called the sacrum – is from a small, flesh-eating dinosaur, similar to the dinosaur Coelophysis that is known from New Mexico and Arizona. While it was assumed that Utah had these large turkey-sized dinosaurs running around, solid evidence of their existence was not available until this specimen was found.

“There are plenty of footprints that suggest these predatory dinosaurs were around during this important time, but footprints can be affected by lots of factors, and many non-dinosaurian reptiles of the time had very similar feet,” Gay said. “The few bones that have been found previously in Utah and called ‘dinosaurs’ were really scrappy, and we can't actually be sure that they really came from dinosaurs. The Triassic Period in Earth's history is critical because it spans the rise of dinosaurs from these small creatures to those that dominate pretty much every land ecosystem five million years later.”

The fossil was found in the Chinle Formation on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land north of Moab in 2005 by the Museum of Moab Director John Foster and a volunteer, when both were working with the Museum of Western Colorado. The collection of fossil vertebrates on BLM land requires a paleontological resources use permit, as was the case with this study.

“It was a blind-luck find in a way,” Foster said. “We knew the rock type to look at and we were specifically looking for reptiles in the Chinle, but most that are found in that unit are non-dinosaurs. I was looking for teeth and bones exposed and visible on loose blocks of rock, and my assistant, Ray Bley, decided to chisel open a similar rock but one that had no indication of bone on or in it. You could do that a thousand times and see only scrap, but Ray split a chunk off and said ‘What’s this?’ – I walked over and there they were, the fused vertebrae of a dinosaur.”

The comparison that Jenkins, Foster and Gay carried out showed that, given the ambiguity of the track evidence and the fragmentary nature or uncertain age of all other purported Triassic dinosaur specimens in Utah, the Moab specimen represents the oldest confirmed dinosaur fossil in the state.

“I think what this helps illustrate very well is that the rise of dinosaurs was rather gradual and that for some time after their first appearance, dinosaurs were in fact very rare,” Foster said. “Evidence of large reptiles is found all over the Moab area in the Chinle Formation, but it took until now to find one that is definitely a dinosaur. And this pattern of actual dinosaurs being rare is true in the Triassic in places like Arizona too.”

The paper in Geology of the Intermountain West is available at: