MOAB — After decades of painstaking excavation, the world’s newest dinosaur is making its debut at the BYU Museum of Paleontology with an unmistakeable name: the Moabosaurus utahensis.
The Moabosaurus is a 125-million-year-old dinosaur whose skeleton was found in the Dalton Wells Quarry near Moab. Like its close relative the Brontosaurus, the dinosaur had a long neck, long tail and huge elephant-like body, though the dinosaur itself is only about 10 meters long — quite small for a sauropod.
The discovery of the Moabosaurus was published Monday by the University of Michigan’s Contributions from the Museum of Paleontology and was authored by three BYU professors and a BYU graduate at Auburn University.
Brooks Britt, BYU geology professor and lead author, has been excavating the dinosaur’s bones since the late '70s when he was a geology student at BYU. Britt and his team have excavated, classified and assembled over 5,500 bones from the quarry, most of which belong to the Moabosaurus.
According to Britt, the animal was a herbivore with coarse teeth used to bite food off, but not chew, swallowing everything directly instead. It also had an exceptionally small brain, essentially the size of a Chinese egg roll.
It is most closely related to species found in Spain and Tanzania, which tells researchers that there were still physical land connections between Europe, Africa and North America during the time of the Moabosaurus, which lived in Utah before the state became the desert that it is now. According to Britt, Utah was once a scenery of green, with large trees, plentiful streams, lakes and dinosaurs.
“One hundred and twenty-five million years ago when these animals died, there was a drought,” Britt told BYU. “During this drought, hundreds, if not thousands, of these animals died. The surviving animals walked along and crushed these bones, and that’s why only 3 percent of the bones that we collected at this quarry are actually complete.”
After the bones were trampled, streams eroded the land after the drought ended and washed the bones further away where they were again trampled. Insects left burrow marks in the bones as they fed on them.
“We’re lucky to get anything out of this site,” Britt said in a 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.”
To analyze the salvaged bones, Britt explained that he and his colleagues relied on comparisons with other related specimens to determine whether or not the bones they’d found were unique. Distinguishing features on the bones help paleontologists judge whether or not what they’ve found belongs to a new dinosaur.
“It’s like looking at a piece of a car,” Britt said in the news release. “You can look at it and say it belongs to a Ford sedan, but it’s not exactly a Focus or a Fusion or a Fiesta. We do the same with dinosaurs.”
Britt and his team of researchers and paleontologists, including fellow authors Rodney Scheetz, Michael Whiting and Ray Wilhite, are very excited about the decades-long discovery, calling the quarry near Moab a “gold mine” for paleontologists.
“Sure, we could find bones at other places in the world, but we find so many right here in Utah,” Britt said. “You don’t have to travel the world to discover new animals.”
Liesl is a reporter at KSL.com, section editor of KSL Tech and a student at Brigham Young University. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @liesl_nielsen.