S. Utah dinosaur had a duck-billed snout -- and 800 teeth
BIG WATER - What's for dinner? How about a salad of leafy treetops followed by some fibrous branches, a side of ferns and, for dessert, a fungus-covered log?
Those may have been menu items for a 30-foot-tall dinosaur with a snout full of teeth - the latest in an expanding list of species that roamed southern Utah 75 million years ago.
With rounded bones in the front of its duck-billed snout - capable of holding up to 800 teeth - paleontologists believe the giant creature could feast on whatever kind of greenery it wanted.
The new species, named Gryposaurus monumentensis, was announced Wednesday at the Big Water Visitor Center in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where crews have discovered two separate specimens of the dinosaur.
"It's like a duck-billed dinosaur on steroids," said Scott Sampson, a research curator for the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah. That's where the skull of one specimen and bones from another were sent for study.
Sampson said the find opens a new window on dinosaurs in North America.
The Gryposaurus is the second new species of dinosaur identified from the fossil-rich southern Utah monument, although paleontologists believe a dozen or so other new species - including velociraptors, tyrannosaurus and horned dinosaurs - have been extracted from its gray-and-red formations.
Sampson and Terry Gates, another research curator at the museum, are co-authors of an article announcing the new species in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.
The nearly complete skull of the Gryposaurus was discovered in 2002 by a group with Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, Calif. That facility is the nation's only accredited dinosaur museum associated with a high school.
Every year, students and volunteers descend on the monument to scout for fossils.
Alf Museum director Don Lofgren said Duncan Everhart, a volunteer with a school expedition in 2002, found the skull.
"This is the best dinosaur find we have found in the past decade," Lofgren said.
Gates studied the skull at the Utah museum's lab. After several trips to Montana and the Canadian province of Alberta to study similar specimens, he determined the skull was from a new species of the duck-billed reptile.
Gates said further studies by paleobotanists and geologists will be conducted to determine the diet of the huge reptile. Studies are likely to include examining markings on the teeth.
"We're hypothesizing that the [dinosaur] possibly ate a large number of plants, which would have sustained its huge size more than if it were a pickier eater," he said.
The creature lived 75 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period, when a sea divided North America into western and eastern landmasses.
Kane County's Kaiparowits Plateau, where the skull and skeleton of a separate Gryposaurus were found, was once similar in climate and vegetation to the swampy coastline of Louisiana.
Gates said the find poses a mystery: Why is the species not found with other concentrations of duck-billed dinosaurs that roamed as near as Alberta and Montana?
"The best science always gives you more questions than answers," he said.
Everhart said he found the skull in an outcrop of bony fragments, but did not know what it was until it had been cleaned off at the Utah museum and a photograph was e-mailed to him.
"I thought, 'Whoa,' when I saw it," Everhart said by telephone from his home in south-central Pennsylvania. "It is probably the biggest find I'll ever have. Skulls are rare finds."
Everhart, who owns a cabinet and furniture shop, became an amateur paleontologist after meeting Lofgren more than a decade ago.
"I just like to get out and look," Everhart said. "I don't have any of the responsibility of science, so it's like a treasure hunt - another set of eyes on the ground."
Alan Titus, the BLM paleontologist for the monument, said the recovery of the fossil was a cooperative effort by the Utah Museum of Natural History, the BLM and the Alf Museum. He said it provides more proof of the treasure trove of fossils there.
"It's very exciting to be naming another dinosaur," Titus said. "It's a relief to talk to people about an animal that has a name."
In 2001, Titus said, bones of another Gryposaurus monumentensis were located on the Kaiparowits Plateau. They included fragments similar to the Everhart skull.
"We had some overlap with the two discoveries, which was a nice coincidence," said Titus.
Fossilized skin impressions were found with the skeleton as well, helping scientists better visualize what the dinosaur looked like.
"We have the skin we can dress this animal in," Titus said. "There are not a lot of dinosaurs you can make that claim for."
When experts finish studying the skill, it will go on display at the Alf Museum.
The last confirmed new species found on the monument was a feathered raptor named Hagryphus giganteus, a giant four-footed, bird-like dinosaur that ate meat as well as plants.
Members of the public can get a behind the scenes look of how scientists study fossils and other prehistoric cultures when the Utah Museum of Natural History, located on President's Circle at the University of Utah, holds its "What's in the Basement?"
Paleontologists, archaeologists, anthropologists and other scientists will be on hand to answer questions and demonstrate how they prepare items, including fossils, for study and exhibits.
* What: What's in the Basement?
* Where: Utah Museum of Natural History
* When: Oct. 13
* Cost: $6.50 adults; $3.50 children ages 3 to 12