Digging Dinos

Watch as a paleontologist and her team of volunteer paleontologists uncover the remains of a new type of dinosaur. Evidence suggests that the desert mountains in Utah, where the bones were found, was once a lush wetland. Researchers use specific methods to carefully uncover the details of not only what the world was like in the past but also how this individual lived, died and rotted.

RALEIGH - There was a new roar heard in the world of dinosaurs in the fall of 2013.

That’s when Dr. Lindsay Zanno, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, joined with scientists at the Field Museum in Chicago, to announce the discovery of Siats (see-atch) meekerorum. This predatory dinosaur dominated the legendary Tyrannosaurus rex.

Siats meekerorum was THE king of predators, until environmental conditions changed to the point where Siats could no longer adapt and it faded away. That allowed the Tyrannosaurus to take over the top of the food chain.

Almost six years passed from the time the fossils were discovered to the announcement of the new predator dinosaur. It took Dr. Zanno and her colleagues that long to recover the fossils, bring them back to laboratories where they were cleaned and analyzed, and then write a report which could be reviewed. But Dr. Zanno tells me it’s worth it.

“You have to understand your past to understand where you are going,” Dr. Zanno says, and she points to a table with a huge fossil still encased in stone sitting on it. “We live on a dynamic planet that is changing, we want to know what it is going to be like in the future and what we should do about it and what we should protect and how to fit in with our own ecosystem. The best record we have of that is the evolution of life on the planet. It's four billion years of data.”

And that’s where the fossil on the table comes in. Because in the same barren, moonscape-looking area of central Utah where Siats was found, paleontologists also discovered the duckbilled dinosaur whose remains now sit on the table.

The discovery happened in the same way Siats meekerorum was discovered. One of Dr. Zanno's colleagues was hiking through the canyon and spotted what looked like a few bones sticking out of the soil.

“The way we find dinosaurs is the way we have for centuries, which means you get out and you put your eyes to the ground and you look around for bones sticking out of the ground, “ explains Dr. Zanno. “You can look for days and weeks in the heat and in the rain and not find anything. It’s easy to get discouraged because you never know when you are going to turn that corner and find something incredible. But that is what keeps you going.”

Dr. Zanno says the new species of duckbilled dinosaur lived about 78 million years ago. It was about 25-feet long and stood about 20-feet tall. Fossils from the area of Utah where it was found indicate the landscape was once the lush and wet coastline of the continent. It was filled with dense vegetation and a variety of reptiles, amphibians and dinosaurs. Radio metric dating of volcanic rock found in the area set that time period between 100 million and 60 million years ago. Not much is known about the creatures that lived in this age of earth’s history, so almost every discovery, including the new dinosaur species, is new to science.

“It’s a gorgeous specimen,” says Dr. Zanno smiling, as she points out various features of the skull. She shows me the brown material is the fossilized bone and the gray material is sandstone. 

“Its eye would have been here and it has a large humped nose that looks a lot like a bird beak,” she adds. “What’s really unique is that it has a bunch of grinding teeth at the back of the jaw.”

The creature was a plant eater that had plenty of teeth. Dr. Zanno points out the fossilized teeth in the skull. It takes a minute for the untrained eye to spot, but indeed there are plenty of teeth that just keep going.

“In fact, it had dental batteries of teeth, 100 to 1000 teeth that kept rotating in,” Dr. Zanno explains. “They ate horrible things such as pine cones, bark and pine needles, so they ground their teeth down but they could continually replace them.”

There are trays of fossils around the paleontology lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Volunteers are quietly picking and scraping at bones. It turns out they all belong to the new dinosaur; one person is working on the tip of a tail, another on a toe bone. The creature’s ribs dominate another entire tabletop. Scientists found much of the new dinosaur’s skeleton. Some of the bones are still encased in the plaster cast that is wrapped around each bone to protect it as it is brought back to the lab.

You can think of paleontology as a kind of prehistoric forensics: scientists look for clues that reveal not only how an animal lived but also what happened to it when it died. They ask questions such as: was it scavenged upon, did it lie in the sun and was it buried quickly before its soft tissue decomposed? The answers reveal what the ecosystem and environment was like where the dinosaur lived and died. 

The new bones reveal the creature was buried in a river but the body was not covered by silt very quickly. There are no signs of soft tissue on the sandstone that covered the bones. Researchers have also spotted teeth marks on some of the bones. It’s impossible to tell if the creature was bitten and died or whether it was scavanged, but something was gnawing on the bone. All those clues indicate the area where the dinosaur died was a lush landscape filled with vegetation.

“It’s still hard to wrap your head around how long ago these animals lived but we have to work in that dimension,” adds Dr. Zanno. “Here we have a whole table of fossils, but each time you study one you fill in a little gap into our understanding.”

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