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New dinosaur discovery announced in Kanab

Published September 17, 2011 11:57 pm

Talos sampsoni was a 3-foot-tall birdlike creature.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Kanab • It's not what most people think of when they conjure up images of dinosaurs, but one of the latest dinosaurs discovered at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was a prehistoric meat-eater standing just 3 feet tall.

The fossil, unveiled Saturday during a celebration marking the 15th anniversary of the monument, possessed many bird-like qualities and is the 12th named dinosaur discovered on the 1.9-million-acre monument created in Kane and Garfield counties by then-President Bill Clinton on Sept. 18, 1996.

About 100 people came to the city's park Saturday to celebrate the anniversary and see a cutout figure of the creature over a lunch of sandwiches, salads and chocolate cake provided by the Bureau of Land Management. The celebration came two days prior to an announcement of the discovery of the dinosaur — identified as Talos sampsoni — in the science journal PLoS ONE .

The dinosaur existed during the Late Cretaceous period, when the continent was split in half by an inland sea more than 70 million years ago. It was named after the Greek mythology figure Talos and paleontologist Scott Sampson, a research curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History and a research faculty member at the University of Utah.

Sampson helped spearhead the collaborative research effort known as the Kaiparowits Basin Project, an exhaustive research project that has been surveying and documenting the Late Cretaceous dinosaur fauna of the Kaiparowits and Wahweap formations of the monument. He also hosts the children's show "Dinosaur Train" on PBS.

Alan Titus, the veteran BLM paleontologist who has played a role in most discoveries on the monument, said that it is almost guaranteed that paleontologists will find a new species a year because the monument is so rich in fossils.

He said the newest find was discovered in 2008 and that its lineage is as close as dinosaurs got to modern birds. A replica of that fossil could be displayed at the new Utah Museum of Natural History on the University of Utah campus as early as November.

"They were real close to birds, being warm-blooded and intelligent, having the largest brain size to body weight," said Titus, one of the authors on the published paper about the new dinosaur.

Lindsay Zanno, the paleontologist who was the lead author on the paper because of her expertise with such dinosaurs, was not at Saturday's event but said in a telephone interview that the new dinosaur is a member of a rare group of bird-like theropods whose evolution in North America has been a long-standing source of scientific debate.

She said that though theropods have been known of for 100 years, the monument discovery is the first significant find in the past 75 years.

"It's an extremely rare find," said Zanno, who is currently teaching at the University of Wisconsin.

She said one of the most significant finds on the skeleton was an injury to a talon on its left foot, believed to have been used like a "butcher hook" similar to those possessed by velociraptors made famous in the movie "Jurassic Park."

Zanno said the injury might support contentions that the talon was never used in walking and may have been injured while capturing prey or in combat. She described the monument as rich in fossils often significantly different from those of similar creatures found no farther away than Montana or Alberta, Canada. She believes many fossil treasures will be discovered in the future.

"It's extremely rugged terrain that kept people out from poking around," she said of the monument. "It is why it is one of the great unexplored bone yards."

Monument manger Rene Berkhoudt said Saturday that paleontology discoveries underscore the importance of scientific research in different disciplines on the monument.

He said that challenges for the future are always budgetary, but on the positive side the monument is moving into new offices in Kanab offering visitors information on exploring and enjoying the rugged landscape. He said that since its creation, recreation permits issued to private companies have risen to 90 and visitation is at 800,000 a year.

He has also hired an administrative assistant, who is also a scientist.

"All our [projects] now will have a scientific component to them," said Berkhoudt.

Carl Roundtree, who heads the BLM's National Landscape and Conservation System, of which Grand Staircase is a part, traveled from Washington, D.C., for Saturday's event and praised the progress the monument has made since its creation.

"What we are learning from paleontology can also teach us how to manage other resources," said Roundtree. "It [the monument] is like an outdoor laboratory."

He said much of the success of projects in managing the monument relies on volunteer programs like one established for the Grand Staircase and he would like to see that emulated by other designated scenic areas in the country.

While the creation of the monument from federal lands was criticized by many in Kanab at the time, an increasing number are coming to see it as an asset.

Kanab resident Pam Foley, who attended the event Saturday, said the BLM has done a good job in educating the public, including school children, about what an exceptional resource the monument is for Kane County.

"They work hard to help us understand," she said.

mhavnes@sltrib.com