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News: Creature Comfort

BYU scientists may have dug up a new breed of sauropod.

By Jonah Owen Lamb
Posted // September 26,2007 - The hulking remains of a long-dead reptile lay at the bottom of a dry wash in the desert country north of Moab. It was buried several feet below the soft mud deposits of what used to be a flood plain. The bones lay not far from a local road where Lin Ottinger, an amateur dinosaur hunter, found them almost five decades ago. And the fossilized bones of the 140-million-year-old dinosaur remained nearly intact until paleontologists from Brigham Young University started a dig there in July.

“It looks like it probably is a new species,” says Ottinger of his find.

What Ottinger unearthed could be a new species of sauropod, the largest animals to ever roam the earth, say most scientists. They are huge, long-necked, long-tailed plant-eaters resembling the Brontosaurus. The dinosaur remains found outside of Moab were almost 50 feet long and thought to be a diplodocid.

If this dinosaur turns out to be a new species, that will be only one aspect of its significance. Any find this large and well-preserved is cause for celebration among dinosaur hunters. The fact that it lie unnoticed for so long in one of the most combed-over fossil beds in the world is remarkable. The remains are also almost completely intact, which is unusual and gives paleontologists a better idea of the animal’s physical makeup. Finally, if this is a new species, it means that for a time in the late Jurassic (142 million to 149 million years ago), there were eight different species of very large omnivores living in the same region. This fact is unprecedented, says Brian Curtice, a paleontologist with the Arizona Museum of Natural History. It would be like eight different species of elephants living in the Serengeti plains of Africa.

BYU’s eight-person crew spent almost a month this past summer excavating the dinosaur. Still, it is only half excavated, says Rod Scheetz, curator of BYU’s Earth Science Museum, one of the paleontologists on the dig. The group plans to return in the spring and finish the job. While Sheetz is fairly confident—based on abnormal bone formation­—this animal is a new species, he won’t know until he gets a closer look in a lab. “Preparation is the bottleneck,” Scheetz says of the next step in the study process. “Every hour in the field is 100 hours in the lab.” 

Meanwhile, Sheetz and three other paleontologists plan to meet over the bones and bring their collective knowledge to bear as to what exactly they have found.

“We know it’s an SUV, and we know it’s a Ford­—we just don’t know the model,” says Brooks Britt, a professor of geological science at BYU, is familliar with the find.

 For now, the team is just glad of the find being intact. Most dinosaur finds, Britt says, are in heaps of scattered bones spread across large areas. “It’s like someone put a bunch of carcasses in a cement mixer and then dumped them out on the ground,” he says. At a site in Orem, for example, there were more than 60 remains all jumbled together.

Intact, or “partially articulated” dinosaurs aid paleontologists in understanding not only a creature’s bone structure but also why and how it died, giving them a much better idea of its environment. Since it hasn’t moved, scientists can look for roots, fossils, burrows and even pollen in the same layer of rock. This in turn clues them into the kind of world this animal inhabited, Britt says.

This particular subspecies probably lived in groups that roamed over large areas for forage, Curtice says. Some of them weighed up to 15 tons and could live to be 100 years old.

“It’s surprising to find something here because this rock group has been studied since the 1870s.” says Britt. “This is one of the most heavily studied rock formations in North America, in terms of dinosaurs,”

Called the Morrison formation, the layer of rock represents an 8-million-year period, says Dan Chure, park paleontologist at Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal. The formation, spread across much of the surface of the Western United States, is a treasure trove of dinosaur fossils.
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