Rare skeleton discovered in Utah’s Canyonlands overjoys paleontologists

The nearly intact specimen could be from a previously unknown species.

(Petrified Forest National Park) This skeleton found in Canyonlands National Park is believed to be about 290 million years old — and it might be from a previously unknown species.

Paleontologists have discovered a 290 million-year-old skeleton in the backcountry of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park — and they believe it could be from a previously unknown species.

The Permian age skeleton was found in late October in the backcountry of Canyonlands, at the bottom of a sandstone wash, officials said.

Embedded in rock, the small skeleton — about a foot long — was threatened by erosion from every rainstorm that flashed through the canyon, according to paleontologists from Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Dr. Adam Marsh, lead paleontologist at Petrified Forest, said that rangers had known about the skeleton anecdotally for “several years,” but efforts to recover it began when Canyonlands interpretation ranger Kenneth Pahl stumbled upon it in the Needles District on the east side of the park.

Canyonlands’ service unit doesn’t include a paleontologist, so officials asked for help from Petrified Forest to obtain a collections permit to extract the skeleton.

Marsh said that he often gets emails from people who think they might have found a fossil, but nine time out of 10, it turns out to be something else entirely. Pahl sent a photo of the skeleton with a pencil next to it for scale.

“Normally, I open those emails like, ‘Okay, what’s this going to be?’” Marsh said. “And my jaw hit the floor when I saw this thing... Here’s this unambiguous, nearly complete skeleton of this animal. All of the other teammates were also blown away.”

Overjoyed like ‘nerdy high school kids’

Marsh knew the specimen was going to be an important find because, “we don’t have many fossils, let alone skeletons, from that rock unit and time period in the western United States.”

Marsh and Pahl were part of a team, which included personnel from the Natural History Museum of Utah and University of Southern California, that met two weeks ago to extract the skeleton after gaining permission from the National Park Service.

The group hiked 6.5 miles to the site of the skeleton and was overjoyed upon seeing the condition that it was in.

“We spent a good 25 minutes just taking photographs and talking about how cool this is — basically just being nerdy high school kids,” Marsh said.

Half the team used concrete saws to cut the skeleton out while the others measured the sandstone rock it was in to determine how old the specimen is, Marsh said. They spent between about four hours at the site before hiking another 6.5 miles back to their trucks.

Marsh carried the two plaster-cased blocks of rock that held the skeleton in his pack, which he said weighed around 60 pounds, before the strap broke with a mile left to go.

“We were able to do some reshuffling and get a different pack to hike it back,” Marsh said. “It was really heavy. Scrambling up and down over those dry wash waterfalls was interesting to say the least.”

Slated for display

The specimen will be cleaned and prepared at Petrified Forest, where further tests — including CT scans — will be performed.

“It’s kind of a unique interval in time where there’s just not a lot of fossils known, especially skeletons like this,” Marsh said.

Marsh indicated that the skeleton could be related to mammals or reptiles, but as of right now, it’s difficult to tell, “other than to say it’s an early amniote, or an early four-legged animal.”

It will eventually be displayed at a National Park Service museum exhibit, officials said.

(Petrified Forest National Park) A team of paleontologists found a 290 million-year-old skeleton in this part of Canyonlands National Park.

— Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.