SALT LAKE CITY -- University of Utah researchers are part of a team that's discovered a new species of meat-eating dinosaur, along with new evidence linking the beast to birds.
Its name is Tawa Hallae -- named for a Native American sun god and the owner of the ranch where the fossil was found in New Mexico, in an area called Ghost Ranch, the subject of many landscapes by the American painter Georgia O'Keeffe.
The name Tawa is from the Hopi name for the Puebloan sun god.
Randall Irmis, assistant professor of geology at the University of Utah and curator of paleontology for the Utah Museum of Natural History, says it's a huge find.
"[It's] a completely new species of early carnivorous dinosaur from the Triassic period, about 213 million years ago," he says.
Irmis says the dinosaur would have been on the small side compared to some of the other giant lizards out there.
"About 3 to 4 feet tall at the hips," he says, "maybe 4 and a half to 5 feet tall at the head, and 6 to 8 feet long."
Paleontologists have long speculated about the connection between dinosaurs and modern birds, but Tawa Hallae is one of the earliest dinosaurs to share bone structure characteristics with birds.
[The Tawa] would have been a fleet-footed small predator running around rivers and streams and eating any small animals it could get into its mouth.
"It turns out that all birds today have these air sacs in their neck; and those air sacs leave evidence on bones by way of little holes in the vertebrae, the neck bones," he explains. "Tawa, the new species, is the earliest evidence for these air sacs in the neck in dinosaurs, and it just adds to the evidence that dinosaurs are related to birds."
Irmis believes Tawa Hallae immigrated to New Mexico from South America during the Triassic period, when the continents were all still connected in one supercontinent known as Pangaea.
There is still a lot of Tawa to examine.
"It's one of the most complete Triassic dinosaurs ever discovered. We have every bone in the body, and we have multiple, different skeletons," he says.
You can check out Tawa Hallae for yourself on Saturday, Dec. 12 at the Utah Museum of Natural History on the campus of the University of Utah. Irmis will be available to answer questions about the dinosaur and how it was found, along with paleontology from noon to 4 p.m. in the museum. The dinosaur's discovery is also being published in this week's edition of the journal Science.