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FAQ about our new dinosaur

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I’ve been absent from the blog for some time. My apologies. Things have been busy around the museum, and the last two weeks even more so than usual.

Last week, as you may have read in the papers or seen on television, we announced the naming of a new species of dinosaur, based on fossils in our collection. Brontomerus mcintoshi is a long-necked plant-eater from the Early Cretaceous Period, found in Utah in 1994. It bears the somewhat dubious distinction of having, well, really enormous thighs. We know this because it has an unusually large hip bone. Big bones mean big muscles attached to them, and this one had, proportionately, the largest of any of the big sauropods. So much so, in fact, that its name means “thunder thighs.”

Click here to read the full story about Brontomerus.

The announcement has raised several questions, some of which I will answer here, for the curious. One thing I have been asked several times is “when will it be on view in the museum?” The sad answer, most likely, is “never.” Brontomerus was described based on a handful of broken and very fragile bones (what our vertebrate paleontology curator refers to as “road kill”) that were salvaged from a site that had been looted by commercial bone-hunters. Anything that was display quality had been taken, and what was left was not pretty. There are only a few pieces of two individuals, and these are far too fragile to put on display. The fossils are of great value to the scientific community, however, because Brontomerus is one of several sauropod discoveries from the Early Cretaceous over the past ten years that shed light on a time period for which not much research had previously been done.

authors-with-fossils-medAnother question I’ve heard is: “How do you know that it’s a new species, or even what it looked like, based on so few pieces?”

Actually, our vertebrate paleontology curator came up with a good analogy for that. You may have met a really good mechanic who can look at a random piece of an engine and tell you at a glance what kind of car it came from. Paleontologists see fossil bones the same way. They know that a bone of a certain size and shape is characteristic of a certain type of dinosaur – in this case, a sauropod. Because they are familiar with lots of sauropods, they know what is typical of this type, and when they run across something new, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The hip bone on this sauropod is just all out of proportion, to the trained eye, to any sauropod they had seen before. It’s shorter in the back and much broader in the front than the same bone on, say, a Brachiosaurus. Based on that, the scientists knew they had something new. From there, it’s a matter of measurement and analysis of all the bones available, and comparison of those bones to known sauropods. Following that research, the paleontologists are able to write up a paper that describes how the new species is different from any other.

Another question about the new dinosaur is: “Why are Utah bones in an Oklahoma museum?” Well, it so happens that the curator of our collection who co-authored the paper, Dr. Rich Cifelli, specializes on mammals of the Early Cretaceous. To do research on that time period, he has to go to areas where rocks of that age can be found… so he has done research from this area of Utah in the past. He has all the requisite permits for collecting on federal land, and he has a relationship with the Bureau of Land Management there. When officials in Utah discovered that looters had been at work, they contacted Dr. Cifelli to let him know that he might want to come out and salvage what he could from the quarry site, before any more got taken or was damaged by exposure to the elements. Cifelli took a team out to Utah and collected what they could and brought the fossils back here to the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History to be prepared and protected in our collection.

One last question: “The bones were collected in 1994. Why did it take so long to name them as a new species?”

First of all, it takes a long time to get fossils out of the rock. Especially if – like these fossils – they are very fragile and broken. The preparation process has to move very slowly and carefully. Broken fossil fragments must be secured with glue all along the way to keep the bones from falling into a hopeless jigsaw puzzle of fossilized bits.

Once the bones were prepared and identified as sauropod, they would have been included in the collection and became available for the scientific community to study. It so happens that the curators at our museum both focus their research efforts on mammals, not dinosaurs, so these pieces were not of particular immediate interest to their line of study. They were, in short, busy with other things. It wasn’t until 2007, when Dr. Mike Taylor visited the collection from England to look at our sauropods that things really got started. Dr. Taylor is a sauropod specialist. He recognized something unusual about the bones right away, and determined to put the study of them on his To Do list. He worked with Matt Wedel, another sauropod specialist who was a graduate student here at OU when the project started. He’s now a PhD, teaching anatomy at Western University of Health Sciences at Pomona, CA.

It took a few more years to do all the requisite research and writing required to get a new species recognized. The paper itself is 24 pages long and full of words like “preacetabular lobe” and “ischiatic peduncle.” Hardly poolside reading.

So those are my answers to questions you may or may not have been wondering about regarding Brontomerus.

sauroposeidon-2010Incidentally, for those who don’t remember this:  Brontomerus is the second new sauropod that has been named from the collection of the OMNH in the past eleven years. The first was Sauroposeidon proteles, found in the 90s in southeastern Oklahoma. It was named in 1999, and earned the Guinness World Record for the world’s tallest dinosaur based on Dr. Cifelli’s estimate that it would have stood some 60 feet tall. Its neck alone would have been 40 feet long!

A couple of years ago, we worked with exhibit fabricators from Research Casting International, a Canadian company that specializes in dinosaur reconstruction, to recreate the neck and head of Sauroposeidon and put it on display in the museum. The long neck stretches down from the museum ceiling in our Orientation Gallery and the dinosaur’s head peers out into the Great Hall to greet visitors. You should come see it.