New Species of ‘Dinosaur’ Found on the Moon?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

 Paleontologist Scott Richards and Angie Tilker shows some people the vertebral column he meticulously worked on.

Angie Tilker, a Page local wilderness guide, made a huge discovery two years ago this month while on the “Moon.”

The Moon is an area located on SITLA land (School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration) just east of Big Water, Utah, off of NP 230. It gets its name for the 93-million-year-old sediment (Tropic Shale) that resembles the gray, lunar landscape of the moon.

Tropic Shale is the bottom of the last ocean that covered the area and is rich in marine fossils. SITLA is one of the few government entities that allows the hunting of invertebrate fossils such as baculites, shells, ammonites, which the moon has many, as well as shark teeth.

Tilker took a couple from New York to the moon on a paleontology tour hoping to find one or maybe two quality fossils. What she found was unheard of.

“It just looked rich. It was darker than everything else,” Tilker said about a mound of Tropic Shale she had eye on for quite some time. “I was looking for limestone to break open and find marine fossils. My first scoop with the shovel and out popped three vertebrae. I immediately knew they were vertebrae. I was speechless and couldn’t catch my breath … almost hyperventilating. I dropped to my knees and started sifting through the Tropic Shale.”

Tilker unearthed a total of 15 fossilized vertebrae, each the size of a lemon, and part of a limb. Her guests thought the vertebrae were planted at first, but soon realized Tilker’s excitement was visceral.

“Once I found 15 vertebrae, I knew I should have stopped at the first three,” she said.

Tilker took photos of the fossils to send to Scott Richardson, who is a paleontologist from Flagstaff.

“Richardson immediately called me and told me to bury everything and mark it with my GPS,” she added. He drove up from Flagstaff the next day to survey the sight.

Tilker took Richardson to the sight and uncovered the 15 loose vertebrae. He dropped to his knees and started brushing away the shale with brushes and dental-like tools.

“Oh, this is cool,” he said as he found eight more vertebrae that were still articulated, which is a good sign that the fossil might be intact. Once he found what he thought was a femur or a humerus, Richardson was at the paleontology crossroad of knowing when to stop in an attempt to not disturb the fragile integrity of the bone.

Angie Tilker the day she found what very well might be a new species of plesiosaur behind Big Water, Utah.

Richardson buried everything back up and made the decision to return with the equipment and permits necessary to preserve the find.

However, there were a few weeks directly following Richardson’s initial visit of rain and snow that turned the shale to thick mud. The excavation was put on hold.

Word started to spread around Big Water and Page that a local had found what might be a dinosaur at the Moon.

Tilker knew it would take weeks for the Tropic Shale to dry out and for the excavation to begin.

“Because it was so close to the road, I would take my dogs out there and babysit the fossil. I referred to it as, ‘my baby,’” she said. “One day I got a call from a coworker in Big Water who noticed a vehicle parked by my baby. I rushed out there and parked further up the hill, so it didn’t look like I was creeping up on them. It was a family looking for fossils. I guess they thought that spot was rich, too. They didn’t have shovels. They were just scanning the ground, so I wasn’t too worried about them stumbling on it. They were tourists and not having much luck. I gave their kids some oyster shells and baculites I had in my Jeep, so they knew what to look for.”

The Tropic Shale eventually dried out and Richardson was able to return to the site with a team of paleontologists and the proper equipment to figure out just what Tilker had found.

Every day the group of paleontologists found more and more of the fossil. Once a piece of the jaw was found with teeth, it soon became clear that what Tilker found was an evolution of Plesiosauria.

Not exactly a dinosaur. Imagine the Loch Ness Monster: A 40-foot reptile that returned to the sea with limbs that evolved into flippers to navigate and hunt throughout the seas as an apex predator.

According to Richardson, the fossil was a juvenile, which might make the identification of a new species more difficult.

“Angie’s find was rare. Teams of paleontologists have spent entire summers finding nothing. I don’t know if it’s a new species. It is the oldest plesiosaur found in this part of Utah,” said Richardson.

World-famous artist Ulrike Arnold was in the area during the excavation of the plesiosaur and caught wind of the discovery. Arnold, who is from Dusseldorf, Germany, collects rocks from a region and pulverizes the stone into a powder she can then mix with a binding agent and paint abstract works of art.

Tilker and Arnold have been friends for years.

“Ulrike uses the earth to create her palette. She told me, ‘This is so inspiring, and I would love to have the opportunity to gather the earth from the dinosaur for my art,’” Tilker said.

Arnold was given permission from the paleontologists to collect the shale brushed away from the plesiosaur. She created several pieces from what she calls her “Dino Dirt.”

The plesiosaur was wrapped in burlap and casted in plaster. Arnold asked Tilker to take her out to the site one more time before it was loaded on a truck and shipped to the lab in Kanab, Utah. Arnold then presented Tilker with a piece of her work from the “Dino Dirt.”

“I shed tears at the moment. Everything has been such a secret. This is the only thing I have from the discovery. I can’t wait to hear from the lab what my baby dino proves to be and offers to history,” Tilker said.

When wrapping up the dig, Richardson said, “I bet there are a thousand of these things underneath here just laughing at us.”