Southern Utah News Articles
Dig this - another dino-mite discovery in the monument
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster movie “Jurassic Park” was a fictional tale of a cloned dinosaur theme park gone amuck. But while that tropical dinosaur park was purely fantasy, real scientists (not actors), are discovering that the central section of the Kaiparowits Plateau in the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument (GSENM), may have very well been the real deal.
“This provides us with a window into a whole different world,” said Dr. Alan Titus, motioning toward the drab, gray, undulating terrain behind him. This area has yielded a plethora of exciting dinosaur discoveries. Some scientists consider the plateau one of the most specimen-rich dinosaur environments in the world.
And GSENM Paleontologist Dr. Alan Titus is right in the center of all the excitement and scientific discovery.
Titus’ 2014 ‘Rainbows and Unicorns’ site was a rare find – a multi-generational group of dinosaurs that perished together in a fire. While those specimens are still being prepared and studied at the GSENM dinosaur lab in Kanab, the discovery already has scientists excited because carnivores like these, were thought to be loners.
“That was a once in a lifetime (if you’re lucky) discovery,” said Titus. “I kind of asked myself, ‘‘how could I ever top that?’ “
In July 2015, he did just that. “We had found an articulated raptor pelvis,” explained Titus, of what the dig group was working on. “I hiked up to a nearby hill and saw about a mile and a quarter away, a badlands basin with eroding rocks, an area that often contains fossils.”
Upon hiking to the location, which paleontologists had not been to yet, he found a pair of neck vertebrae of a hadrosaur. “I was working on the vertebrae when I saw another bone sticking out of the hill,” said Titus.
One bone led to another and another – once again he had eagle-eyed a dino!
Titus had discovered the first nearly complete articulated tyrannosaur dinosaur in the southwest. Such animals are rarely found, let alone still assembled together like at the new site. At present they are calling the enormous creature a Teratophoneus, but that cannot be confirmed until the specimen reaches the lab. “Now we have one that’s complete and all put together,” said Titus.
He ventured the reason for the skeletal completeness might have been a rapid event burying the animal, such as a flood. In the time period the Teratophoneus existed, the area was a very humid, hot, tropical environment, with storms and even hurricanes. The discovery’s rarity was that meat-eating dinosaurs aren’t found often.
Since Titus discovered the Teratophoneus, it was at his discretion how to proceed. Since the GSENM lab in Kanab was maxed out on space due to the prior discoveries, he decided to turn the site over to the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. “They are our official repository.”
A quarry to fully excavate the site was opened in May of 2017. “They were so excited when they realized what they had,” said Titus. “They’ve been using museum personnel, university paleontology students and retired volunteers to do the dig, which is nearly complete. They’re great – we’re all part of a team.”
The first step the excavation crew did was expose as much bone as they could. (No easy task, since much of it is clearing away hard rock with hammers, picks and shovels.) The goal being clearing a plane or surface over the bone. The animal’s head to toe is all intact, with only the legs being slightly separated from the joints, but nearby.
The next step was creating a grid zone and laying out meters. Then when every bone is mapped, the volunteers begin the long process of wrapping the animal in protective jackets. Once complete, they flip the blocks encasing the bones into helicopter nets for transport.
“Once back at their lab in the Rio Tinto Center, they will have to get the bone out of the rock, which can take a couple of years,” said Titus. “It’s a labor and time consuming endeavor. We won’t know what it is until they do this. We could have a totally new kind of tyrannosaur. But it’ll take five to 10 years to make it into the science books.”
Randall Irmis, Curator of Paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah, as well as Associate Professor at the University of Utah, has been in charge of the dig. Currently he is accompanied by a crew of nine, but at the height of the dig had up to 12.
“We’ve found a nearly complete skeleton,” said Irmis. “The site we’ve been working on is approximately 20x25 feet wide, and five foot deep. Most of the skeleton is in a narrow 10x10 area, and is partially articulated. When I saw the connected vertebrae, I knew this site had high potential.”
“This is really exciting because these tyrannosaurs were apex predators,” stressed Irmis. “It is one of the rarest and most complete dinosaurs of this kind ever found in the southwest.”
Irmis said the animal was approximately 17-20 feet long, and weighed 1750-2250. (Adults could grow up to 25 feet long and up to 3000 pounds!)
“The specimen is approximately 76 million years old and probably three quarters of full size,” said Titus.
“They had serrated teeth that were clearly for piercing and shredding flesh,” added Irmis, of what they had found. “The top maxillary had 34 teeth on the upper set of the jaw, with a total of 68 teeth all together.”
“We frequently find their teeth at herbivore kill sites, said Titus, “so it’s not hard to guess what they ate.”
The two paleontologists said with Titus’ other Rainbows and Unicorn site, and now with the almost complete skeleton, scientists will be able to learn so much more about the gigantic carnivores.
“We are seeing multiple generations at the Rainbow site, suggesting that wasn’t just an opportunistic gatherings,” said Irmis. “There seems to be a connecting behavior.”
There will be many long hours and years ahead at the lab, but Irmis said it will be rewarding working on something of such import. “We are the state’s museum, and in that capacity they’ve always been very supportive. We have traveling outreach paleo programs that we take to school children in every county in the state.”
Irmis said the specimen will be flown out in several loads in mid-late October. The helicopter will transport the packages from the quarry to a nearby staging area, where they’ll be lifted onto trucks for the ride to Salt Lake.
“It gives us a sense of how Utah has changed over time,” said Irmis. “Dinosaurs are a great way to get people into science. These are species that have never been found before anywhere in the world. By studying them, (and possibly exhibiting them) the specimens will be protected and held in the public trust. “
“These resources are so unique,” concluded Titus. “Today, this is the only place we can study these animals.”