Utahraptor vs. Allosaurus: How a 10-year-old dinosaur fan persuaded a Utah senator to start a legislative battle over the state fossil

The young dinosaur fan set up a fight millions of years in the making.<br>

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) 10-year-old dinosaur fanatic Kenyon Roberts holds a model of an Allosaurus claw in his dinosaur-themed room, Thursday December 14, 2017 in Draper. Roberts persuaded Sen. Curt Bramble to draft legislation to change Utah state fossil from Allosaurus to Utahraptor.

One night at dinner, 10-year-old dinosaur fan Kenyon Roberts asked a family guest — state Sen. Curt Bramble — why Utah had made the Allosaurus its official state fossil.

“I didn’t know we had a state fossil,” Bramble says.

So Kenyon launched into a long argument about why Utahraptor should have that designation instead. As he explains now, “Its name has ‘Utah’ in it, and it’s only found in Utah. The Allosaurus has been found in Europe, Africa and other states. The first Allosaurus skull was found in Colorado.”

Utahraptor also helped save original “Jurassic Park” filmmakers from a flaw. The Velociraptors that it featured “are really only the size of turkeys,” Kenyon says. Amid complaints about that, the related Utahraptor was discovered “and is actually larger than the raptors the movie uses.” So it became a star of later movies and video games.

“He convinced me,” Bramble says. So Kenyon — son of Republican activist Jeremy Roberts — asked him, “Are you going to open a bill file?” His dad adds, “It says something about my politics that I’ve raised my kids to know what a bill file is.”

Bramble, R-Provo, indeed is drafting legislation to make the change official — setting up a battle between Allosaurus and Utahraptor that may have been millions of years in the making.

When Kenyon was asked who would win a real fight between the two dinosaurs, he says without hesitation, “Utahraptor. It might be slightly smaller than the Allosaurus, but smarter.” He adds that scientists believe Utahraptors hunted in packs, so Allosaurus may have been outnumbered in any confrontation.

Kenyon loves dinosaurs, obviously.

The nightstand in his bedroom, he notes, “is a dinosaur world. It’s full of plastic dinosaurs.” The fifth-grader also has some real fossils, including prehistoric plants and the tooth of a Tyrannosaurus rex — and resin replicas of other dinosaur bones.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) 10-year-old dinosaur fanatic Kenyon Roberts sorts through dinosaurs in his room, Thursday December 14, 2017 in Draper. Roberts persuaded Sen. Curt Bramble to draft legislation to change Utah state fossil from Allosaurus to Utahraptor.

If anyone chooses a letter of the alphabet, he can name a dinosaur (or many) that begin with that letter and details about them.

When asked for one that begins with the letter “K,“ he quickly said, “Kentrosaurus. It’s from Africa, really Kenya. Jurassic period, 480 million years ago. It walked on four legs. It’s a relative of Stegosaurus. It ate plants.”

After Kenyon went through other examples, his father said, “He may have a small problem with dinosaurs.”

Bramble said he doesn’t like the debates that often occur to create new state symbols, but noted Utah already has a state fossil. “And if we’re going to have a state fossil, then it ought to be something unique to the state.”

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo asks a question during the Senate Revenue and Taxation Standing Committee at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday January 26, 2017.

Meanwhile, Bramble and state drafting attorneys asked young Kenyon Roberts to review an early draft of the bill to honor Utahraptor. His father notes that he told drafting attorneys, “The bill’s fine, but Utahraptor needs to be one word, not two.”

Bramble said drafting attorneys “confirmed that this little 10-year-old could talk your arm off about dinosaurs and fossils.”

Someone who is generally supportive of the idea of better honoring Utahraptor is Utah State Paleontologist James Kirkland — but there’s a special reason for that.

“The main reason I am the state paleontologist is that I discovered Utahraptor. Utahraptor has been very, very good to me,” Kirkland said. “I am the world authority on Utahraptor.”

He said that discovery was made about 1990 near Arches National Park. He, Robert Gaston and Donald Burge described the dinosaur and named it in 1993 — not long after the original “Jurassic Park” film was released that year. That turned into a godsend for the movie.

Filmmakers had doubled the size of Velociraptors, leading to complaints from dinosaur lovers. “About the same time, we announced our animal,” which was twice as large as any known raptor, Kirkland said.

“And the press said, ‘Steven Spielberg’s giant raptors are vindicated.’ So it made the No. 7 science story of the year in Time magazine, and the cover of Discovery magazine,” he said. “It was pretty exciting stuff.”

As Smithsonian magazine later wrote, “Utahraptor rode the wave of dinomania generated by ‘Jurassic Park’ and became the star of several documentaries and video games.”

“A lot of people around the county already think Utahraptor is the official state fossil,” Kirkland said, adding that could be a reason to change the designation. But he explained there are plenty of reasons for Allosaurus to have that title, too.

“The first state paleontologist, Jim Madsen, was the world’s authority on Allosaurus,” Kirkland said, and “it was largely through his work that Allosaurus became the state fossil” in 1988 — a few years before Utahraptor was discovered.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The reconstructed skeleton of the Allosaurus dinosaur on display at the Vernal Dinosaur museum in Vernal, Utah.

He adds that the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry in Utah provided more than 50 Allosaurus specimens, from 3-foot-long juveniles to 35-foot-long adults. The high number of specimens there made Allosaurus the best understood large carnivorous dinosaur.

“There are historical reasons for keeping the Allosaurus,” Kirkland said. So he proposes a compromise.

“Some states have both a state fossil and a state dinosaur, so how about keeping the Allosaurus as the state fossil and make Utahraptor the state dinosaur?” he said.

While 43 states have a state dinosaur or fossil, Utah is the only one to honor Allosaurus, and none has selected Utahraptor.

Utah has 27 official state symbols.

Among them are the state bird (seagull), flower (sego lily), cooking pot (Dutch oven), insect (honeybee), rock (coal), tree (quaking aspen), winter sports (skiing and snowboarding), firearm (Browning M1911 pistol), vegetable (Spanish sweet onion) and historic vegetable (sugar beet).

Kirkland notes that a move is also afoot to make a state park out of quarry where Utahraptors have been found. Also, he said scientists have started a GoFundMe account to raise money to work on an excavated 18,000-pound block of petrified stone that contains several well-preserved Utahraptor fossils.