Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Solving The Mystery of Gryposaurus

Terry Gates - better known as Bucky - is a paleontologist here at the Utah Museum of Natural History. Today, there's hot news about a dinosaur he named. Here's what he had to say about the whole experience:

"I study the duck-billed dinosaurs that lived in southern Utah around 75 million years ago (during the Late Cretaceous period). For decades, paleontologists knew that there were duck-billed dinosaurs hidden in the sediments of what is now Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but their identity remained buried. That is, until a volunteer from the Raymond M. Alf Museum in California found a skull within the Kaiparowits Formation of the Monument.

The Alf Museum needed help collecting the large skull from the steep and rugged landscape, so in August 2004 UMNH preparation lab manager Eric Lund and I helped the Alf Museum bring it to UMNH. Everyday I visited Eric as he cleaned the fossil in our preparation lab, trying to decipher any information possible from the bones that he had exposed. (Check out Eric’s blog entry for a description of that process).

It wasn’t until we got our hands on a piece of bone that had eroded from the skull that I was able to tell what kind of duck-billed dinosaur this was. Every known species on Earth has a genus and species name; for instance, the genus name for humans is Homo and the species name is sapien. In the same way, all dinosaurs have a genus and species name, and members of the same genus have characteristics in common. The portion of the skull that I found inside a box of eroded bone was exactly the piece of evidence I needed to quickly identify this specimen’s genus. The species of the genus Gryposaurus share several characteristics that are only present on those animals, most noticeably a prominent hump on the nose bone – and that’s what I found.

Now that I knew the genus, I had to figure out the species name. That was more difficult and I had to wait until preparation of the skull was nearly complete before I could proceed with detailed study. Once Eric completely exposed the skull (after two years) I was finally able to meticulously compare the shape of bones on this skull to that of other known species of duck-bills. I traveled to museums all over the U.S. and Canada (including Bozeman, MT, New York, NY, Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), in order to see a broad spectrum of dinosaurs that might help me identify our mystery species.

In the end, I found that there are several differences in the skull found in southern Utah compared to other species of the genus Gryposaurus. Because of these key differences, I named a new species, Gryposaurus monumentensis, meaning “Hooked nose lizard from the monument”.

The process of naming a new species is not easy. First I had to do weeks of research, then spend weeks writing a description of the new species for other scientists. Finally, I submitted the research paper to a scientific journal for publication. More time passed for editing, revisions from other paleontologists, and final editing from the journal. When you count all those phases, it took literally months to name a new species, which explains why it has taken three years since the excavation of the skull for the name to become official. Yet, in the end, all of the work is worth the effort because each new species opens the door a little wider on the ecology and lives of prehistoric animals, and allows us to ask deeper and deeper questions about an ancient world."

Have a question for Bucky about his work? Click "Comments" below and ask him yourself!


Julian's blog said...

Hi there!
I found your blog fascinating...quite unlike any others on the blogger web site.
Good digging, eh?

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

What an exciting find!!! Congrats!!!