I saw the bones laid out on the dusty laboratory tables of BYU’s Museum of Paleontology. The whine of air-powered tools and the sound of rock being scraped from bone filled dusty workspace. The startlingly white bones looked as if they had come from a recently deceased animal, but a closer look guided by Chure and Engelmann left no doubt that these were the petrified remains of juvenile dinosaurs. Bits of skull set with recurved teeth, hollow bones, and even a prehistoric wishbone or two were clues that a group of slender predatory dinosaurs had died and gone to pieces in the same place. “You can count the number of fossil vertebrates from [early Jurassic] deposits on one hand, and not all of that hand,” Chure said. “This is the biggest Early Jurassic theropod collection in the Western Hemisphere, possibly the world.” Britt chimed in: “It’s a gold mine!”
This dinosaur species still lacks a name, though Britt, Chure and Engelmann believe it is closely related to a more recent theropod called Coelophysis. These gracile dinosaurs had narrow, triangular heads, long necks and lightly built bodies that stretched about 10 feet long. Based on how often they are found together, Coelophysis likely traveled in groups. No complete, articulated skeletons of the new species have been found, but the state of their bones suggests how they died. Given the arid habitat and the fact the juvenile animals often die in droughts today, the working hypothesis is that the dinosaurs died of thirst and their bodies were preserved when water covered their bones. Their bodies sat in a temporary pool for long enough that the skeletons fell apart. The bones are well preserved, hinting that the dinosaurs died shortly before the return of the rains they so desperately needed.
Tucked away in other drawers at the BYU lab are four skulls, ranging from nearly complete to little more than a set of dinosaur “dentures,” or snout and teeth, from a 104-million-year-old sauropod dinosaur recently discovered at the monument. Named Abydosaurus mcintoshi, this dinosaur is helping fill in a gap in dinosaur history that has long frustrated paleontologists. For many years it seemed that the great long-necked sauropods went into a decline in North America about 145 million years ago, but Abydosaurus shows that these dinosaurs were still thriving in North America for much longer. And there is more left in the rock. With some carefully placed explosives, Chure and Britt hope to clear off an even larger exposure of the bonebed where Abydosaurus rests.
I'm glad the outdated, crumbling dinosaurs still stand along the road outside the park. The poor creatures are a baseline for dinosaurs as we used to know them—a historical remnant that shows us just how dramatically our understanding of these magnificent creatures has changed. Dinosaurs were not stupid, drab creatures destined for extinction (or to advertise hotel swimming pools). They were fantastic, vibrant animals whose avian descendants remain among us today. Through the beautiful swaths of geologic time exposed at Dinosaur National Monument, preserved thanks to Douglass' dream, we can gain a few glimpses into just how magnificent the Age of Dinosaurs truly was.