After decades of work, researchers at Brigham Young University announced the discovery last week of a “new” dinosaur species that roamed the Moab area an estimated 125 million years ago.
BYU geology professor and lead author Brooks Britt and his team wanted to honor the City of Moab and the State of Utah for their support of the excavation work at the Dalton Wells Quarry, which began when Britt was a BYU graduate student in the late 1970s. So they dubbed their find “Moabosaurus utahensis.”
The University of Michigan’s Contributions from the Museum of Paleontology first published the discovery earlier this month in a paper from three BYU researchers and a BYU graduate at Auburn University in Alabama.
The team, which included BYU Museum of Paleontology curator Rod Scheetz and biology professor Michael Whiting, assembled Moabosaurus utahensis from bones they extracted at the quarry near Arches National Park’s western boundary.
Grand County resident Lee Shenton, who chairs the Friends of Utah Paleontology’s Gastonia Chapter, said the team found more than 5,000 specimens of bone – mainly in the form of fragments. Only 3 percent of all specimens they collected at the site were intact as full bones, Shenton said.
“They believe the evidence is strong that there were a group of them that expired for probably the same reason,” Shenton said.
Crucially, they discovered 18 “brain cases,” which helped them determine that there were at least 18 individual Moabosaurus dinosaurs in that particular assemblage of fossils, Shenton said.
“It’s part of the evidence (that explains) how it was identified as a new species,” he added.
According to Shenton, Moabosaurus is believed to be about 12 to 13 million years older than the dinosaurs whose tracks are imprinted into the rock at the nearby Mill Canyon site.
The bones turned up in the Cedar Mountain Formation, Shenton said – the same geological stratum has yielded two other unique dinosaur genera: Gastonia and Utahraptor.
“This is another example of how productive the fossil record is in Utah, and in the Moab area, generally,” Shenton said.
The latter species most certainly didn’t live in harmony with the newly discovered dinosaur: According to Shenton, state paleontologist Jim Kirkland has referred to Moabosaurus as “kibbles for Utahraptor.”
Moabosaurus is in the same group of long-necked, plant-eating sauropod dinosaurs like Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus. BYU researchers say it is most closely related to species found in Spain and Tanzania, which suggests that there were still intermittent physical connections between Europe, Africa and North America, according to a BYU news release.
The species roamed the area at a time when the climate and environment were much wetter than they are now, and a past study suggests that many Moabosaurus and other dinosaurs died in a severe drought.
“We’re lucky to get anything out of this site,” Britt said in the news release. “Most bones we find are fragmentary, so only a small percentage of them are usable. And that’s why it took so long to get this animal put together: We had to collect huge numbers of bones in order to get enough that were complete.”
Museum of Moab Director John Foster said the Moabosaurus is more advanced than sauropods that were found in the Morrison Formation beneath the Cedar Mountain Formation, but less so than later species found in upper geological formations.
The discovery, he said, continues to upend assumptions that were common among paleontologists just a few decades ago.
“It’s probably getting to the point where (paleontologists will have discovered) more dinosaurs in the Cedar Mountain Formation than the Morrison Formation pretty soon,” Foster said. “Moabosaurus is part of an explosion of things coming out of the Cedar Mountain Formation that weren’t expected 30 years ago.”
It might be surprising to some that no other dinosaur species have been named in honor of the paleontological hotspot that is Moab.
“You’d think that would have happened earlier, given how many dinosaurs have come from here over the years,” Foster said.
But Foster suspects that’s because many people were aware of Britt’s work, so they refrained from coming up with similar names.
“It’s never been official, but everybody knew it to be called ‘Moabosaurus,’” he said.
Shenton said that he and others in the local paleontology community are pleased to see that the BYU team’s discovery has been officially announced, after so many years of work. So was Moab Rock Shop owner Lin Ottinger, who said he discovered the Dalton Wells Quarry when he saw small fragments of bone at the bottom of a nearby hill and wash.
“I’m glad that they named it the Moab dinosaur,” he said.
According to Ottinger, the latest discovery was made in the same area where he found the first Utahraptor bone.
“They still have it up at BYU,” he said.
Ottinger’s ties to the university go back to the 1960s, when he took “Dinosaur Jim” Jensen to the site.
“He was the first human to see it, besides me,” Ottinger said.
Jensen, who helped develop BYU’s paleontology program, later returned the favor by naming the first Iguanodon ever found in the U.S. after Ottinger: Iguanodon ottingeri.
Today, the quarry site is much better known, but with that additional scrutiny comes the threat of vandalism and pilfering. Looters and vandals have targeted the quarry in the past, Shenton said, but nowadays, Gastonia Chapter members visit the site regularly and watch for signs of illegal activities.
“I think it’s a good idea to let people know that someone’s paying attention,” he said.
Ultimately, he said, anyone who is not a paleontologist by training or profession would not have much luck in finding bones or other traces of dinosaurs at the quarry.
“For the average person, it would be difficult to identify, and much more difficult to extract it,” he said. “The stuff that was easily removed is long gone.”
Bones came from Dalton Wells quarry near Arches
This is another example of how productive the fossil record is in Utah, and in the Moab area, generally.