Lit­tle dino a big deal

Dis­cov­ery of a thou­sand an­cient lit­tle skele­tons over 70 years ago at Ghost Ranch sparked decades of in­ter­est by pa­le­on­tol­o­gists, school chil­dren

The Taos News - - SCIENCE - By Paul Wei­de­man pwei­de­man@sfnewmex­i­

ABIQUIÚ – Ge­orge Whitaker’s sprint alerted his group that this wasn’t go­ing to be just an­other Sun­day morn­ing.

June 1947, Ghost Ranch: Whitaker, who had gone off on his own to ex­plore, came run­ning back to a team led by noted Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Ed­win Col­bert.

“As he scram­bled up the slope to­ward us, it was ev­i­dent that he was very ex­cited,” Col­bert wrote later. “He had a right to be; in his hands he had some tiny bone frag­ments, in­clud­ing a well-pre­served claw.”

Col­bert iden­ti­fied them as Coelo­ph­ysis, a small di­nosaur from the Tri­as­sic pe­riod. It was a mo­ment that sig­naled the start of some­thing sig­nif­i­cant.

“The more we dug, the more fos­sils we found, so that be­fore the af­ter­noon was over we were be­gin­ning to re­al­ize that here was the most un­usual con­cen­tra­tion of di­nosaur bones,” Col­bert wrote in his 1995 book “The Lit­tle Di­nosaurs of Ghost Ranch.”

Whitaker’s dis­cov­ery on that fate­ful Sun­day led to a find of more than 1,000 Coelo­ph­ysis (SEE-low-FY-sis) fos­sil skele­tons in an area only a half-acre in size. Now, more than 70 years later, the New Mex­ico Cul­tural Prop­er­ties Re­view Com­mit­tee has voted to list the site known as the Whitaker Di­nosaur Quarry on the state’s Regis­ter of Cul­tural Prop­er­ties.

The com­mit­tee has for­warded the nom­i­na­tion to the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, where it re­mains un­der re­view for in­clu­sion on the Na­tional Regis­ter of His­toric Places, said Steven Moff­son, state and na­tional regis­ter co­or­di­na­tor for the state’s His­toric Preser­va­tion Di­vi­sion.

Ex­actly how a thou­sand di­nosaurs could be found in such a com­pact area has long in­ter­ested ex­perts. But Charles L. Jaynes, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Ghost Ranch Foun­da­tion and chair­man of the ad­vi­sory board for the mu­se­ums there, said there is a plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion.

“We think there was a drought in the Tri­as­sic Pe­riod – 212 to 215 mil­lion years ago, plus or mi­nus 15 min­utes – and these an­i­mals were con­gre­gated around a pool and a flash flood came out of the high coun­try just like they do to­day and they were trapped,” Jaynes said dur­ing a re­cent hike in the area. “Then they all washed down and got hung up on a point bar or some­thing like that, and the bod­ies just piled up.”

The Coelo­ph­ysis grew to 10 feet long and is thought to have weighed about 110 pounds. For his part, Col­bert be­lieved the di­nosaur was an en­gi­neer­ing mar­vel, blessed with “a long stride, which en­abled it to run from 15 to 27 miles per hour.” Its long tail, he con­tin­ued, “coun­ter­bal­anced the body as it ran and aided in quick changes of di­rec­tion.”

Sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant di­nosaur-quarry sites are on the

21,000-acre Ghost Ranch prop­erty. The Whitaker quarry is on a hill­side ad­ja­cent to the awe-in­spir­ing Kitchen Mesa. Dur­ing the 1940s, ex­ca­va­tions by Col­bert and then oth­ers in the 1980s,

30-odd large blocks of rock were re­moved, the soft silt­stone blocks wrapped with burlap and thickly plas­tered so they would sur­vive trans­port.

The quarry was back-filled in


“If we climbed up this a lit­tle way and dug down to chest level, we’d find hun­dreds of bones,” Jaynes said at the site. “We main­tain this all the time and there has been a mora­to­rium for all these years be­cause there are so many blocks out. The Carnegie Mu­seum in Pitts­burgh still has five or six of them that haven’t even been opened.”

The Ghost Ranch story be­gan in 1881, when two brothers “of du­bi­ous rep­u­ta­tion,” as Jaynes put it, used the box canyon next to the Whitaker quarry to store booty from their es­capades.

“At the same time the ma­raud­ing Archuleta brothers were rustling live­stock around here, there was a fel­low in Abiquiú, David Bald­win, who we would call a rock hound to­day. He was re­tained by pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Ed­ward Drinker Cope of Philadel­phia to look for fos­sils.”

Bald­win found six bird­like bones at an­other Ghost Ranch site (now known as the Hay­den Quarry, which is ac­tively worked to­day by pa­le­on­tol­o­gists with the Univer­sity of Utah, the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Columbia Univer­sity, and Vir­ginia Tech) and showed them to Cope. The sci­en­tist rec­og­nized that they were from a di­nosaur, and he named it Coelo­ph­ysis, which means “hol­low form.”

“The Tri­as­sic (Pe­riod) must have been a hor­ri­ble time,” Jaynes said, “be­cause ev­ery­thing that lived here, with the ex­cep­tion of the lit­tle di­nosaurs like the Coelo­ph­ysis, was ar­mored like tanks with os­teo­derms (bony plates in the skin).”

On the trail to the Whitaker quarry, Jaynes talked about the ge­o­logic for­ma­tions with names like Chinle, En­trada and Todilto and places like Kitchen Mesa.

“On the very top of the mesa is gyp­sum, the Todilto For­ma­tion, also Juras­sic, and that was laid down by a se­ries of in­land lakes that stretched from here all the way to Tu­cum­cari,” he said. “Above that you can see pink­ish, pur­ple and white and that is the Mor­ri­son For­ma­tion, which was the real Juras­sic Park. That’s when the big guys were here.”

He said Coelo­ph­ysis was “a dis­tant cousin, and a pre­cur­sor” to the Ve­loci­rap­tor that fig­ures so strongly in the plots of the Juras­sic Park movies. But the rap­tors and Tyran­nosaurus Rex came on the scene much later.

“That was the Cre­ta­ceous Pe­riod,” Jaynes said. “The old­est Coelo­ph­ysis we’ve dated here is about 215 mil­lion years old and T. Rex was here from 67 mil­lion to 65 mil­lion years ago.”

The Tri­as­sic di­nosaurs were mostly small car­ni­vores, and most were ex­tinct by the on­set of the Juras­sic Pe­riod.

“The Mor­ri­son had Bron­tosaurus, Stegosaurus and Di­plodocus. Then at the very top of these cliffs is the Dakota for­ma­tion, which was laid down by the Cre­ta­ceous in­land sea. If you go up on the very top, you’ll find shark’s teeth. We’ve got the whole Age of Di­nosaurs right here on the ranch.”

Jaynes, a na­tive of Clo­vis, was chief of safety and risk man­age­ment for the U.S. Depart­ment of the In­te­rior for 30 years. “But I’ve stud­ied this stuff since I was 9, and I’ve worked with some of the best sci­en­tists in the world,” he said. “It’s just been a great hobby all my life. When I was 9, in the Texas Pan­han­dle, I found a com­plete lower jaw of a 6 mil­lion-year-old rhi­noc­eros called Teleo­ceras. That’s when the bug bit me.” This story first ap­peared in The New Mex­i­can, a sib­ling pub­li­ca­tion of The Taos News.

Pho­tos by Gabriela Cam­pos/The New Mex­i­can

A Machaero­proso­pus skele­ton show­cas­ing an im­pres­sive set of teeth is on dis­play at the Ruth Hall Mu­seum of Pa­le­on­tol­ogy at Ghost Ranch Ed­u­ca­tion & Re­treat Cen­ter near Abiquiú.

Pho­tos by Gabriela Cam­pos/The New Mex­i­can

Charles L. Jaynes, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Ghost Ranch Foun­da­tion board of di­rec­tors and chair­man of the ad­vi­sory board for the mu­se­ums at Ghost Ranch, ex­am­ines a fos­silized skele­ton in one of the 30 blocks re­moved from the Whitaker Di­nosaur Quarry at the Ruth Hall Mu­seum of Pa­le­on­tol­ogy on Oct. 10.

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