Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dino Discovery

The discovery of an until now unknown dinosaur can trace its roots back to Harrisburg’s State Museum.

Scientists at the state-owned center were working their way through a block of mudstone in 2004 when they found a skull that seemed a bit different. The researchers thought they were looking at fossils of a Coelophysis – a small carnivore. Senior curator Robert Sullivan and fossil preparer Kevin Dermody quickly realized this was a different dinosaur. “The skull is different, because it’s shorter,” he explained. “The teeth are procumbent in that they stick out towards the front of the skull. The teeth seem to be longer. And there’s some other subtleties of the skull that differentiate it from Coelophysis.”

Sullivan alerted scientists at the Carnegie Museum, which owns the mudstone block. Researchers there and at the Smithsonian spent years investigating the skull, and have now determined it is, in fact, a new dinosaur called Daemonosaurus. Their findings were published last month in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

How’s it feel to help discover a dinosaur? “I do find new dinosaurs on occasion,” said Sullivan, laughing. “This is odd in that we did not expect to find it in the block. And this just goes to show that we don’t know everything there is to know about the prehistoric life 220 million year ago. … Nobody has found anything quite like this on one of those other blocks. So it’s obviously a rare find, and, of course, it’s the first and only one of its kind. So from that standpoint it’s – we were quite lucky to play a minor role in its discovery.”

The initial find was made in the museum’s Dino Lab, an interactive exhibit showing visitors how fossils are prepared after discovery in the field. Here’s how the museum’s website explains the exhibit: “After fossils (including dinosaur skeletons) are found in the field, many steps, not normally seen by the public, are taken to prepare the fossils for exhibition. Visitors can witness this process of uncovering the fossilized bones from the rock that surrounds them.”

And sometimes, they can witness groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

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