Arlington, Va. - The National Science Foundation (NSF) invites members of the media to hear about the discoveries of fossils of two dinosaurs believed to be new to science during a news conference in Washington D.C. on Thursday, Feb. 26 (10 a.m. PST, 1 p.m. EST). The event will be Webcast live at http://www.connectLive.com/events/nsf. Members of the news media may call in to pose questions at 1-888-882-news.
Against incredible odds, researchers working in separate sites thousands of miles apart in Antarctica have found what they believe are the fossilized remains of two species of dinosaurs previously unknown to science.
One of the two finds, which were made less than a week apart, is an early carnivore that would have lived many millions of years after the other, a plant-eating beast, roamed the Earth. One was found at the sea bottom, the other on a mountaintop.
Journey to the bottom of the sea
Working on James Ross Island off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, veteran dinosaur hunters Judd Case, James Martin and their research team believe they have found the fossilized bones of an entirely new species of carnivorous dinosaur related to the enormous meat-eating tyrannosaurs and the equally voracious, but smaller and swifter, velociraptors that terrified movie-goers in the film "Jurassic Park."
Features of the animal's bones and teeth led the researchers to surmise the animal may represent a population of carnivores that survived in the Antarctic long after they had been succeeded by other predators elsewhere on the globe.
"One of the surprising things is that animals with these more primitive characteristics generally haven't survived as long elsewhere as they have in Antarctica," said Case, dean of science and a professor of biology at Saint Mary's College of California who discovered the bones. "But, for whatever reason, they were still hanging out on the Antarctic continent."
Case said the shape of the teeth and features of the feet are characteristic of a group of dinosaurs known as theropods, which includes the tyrannosaurs, as well as all other meat-eating dinosaurs. The theropods, or "beast-footed" dinosaurs, make up a large and diverse group of now-extinct animals with the common characteristic of walking on two legs like birds. Recent research has shown that birds are direct descendants of theropods.
The remains include fragments of an upper jaw with teeth, isolated individual teeth and most of the bones from the animal's lower legs and feet. The creature likely inhabited the area millions of years ago when the climate and terrain were similar to conditions in today's Pacific Northwest and radically different than they are today.
Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, said the size and shape of the ends of the lower-leg and foot bones indicate that in life the animal was a running dinosaur roughly 1.8 to 2.4 meters (6 to 8 feet) tall.
The excavations were supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, which coordinates almost all U.S. research on the southernmost continent and in the surrounding oceans.
The field party included representatives of Argentina's Museo de La Plata, Minot State University, the University of Oklahoma, the South Dakota Geological Survey and graduate students from University of California, Riverside and the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
According to Case, luck played a major role in the find.
First, relatively few dinosaur fossils from the end of the Cretaceous Period, which lasted from 144 million to 65 million years ago, (the second half of the so-called "Age of Dinosaurs"), have been found in Antarctica. Second, the specimen was an exceedingly rare find and one of only six dinosaur fossils that have been discovered in the James Ross region of the Antarctic Peninsula, the landmass that juts north from the southernmost continent toward South America. Also, to have been preserved at all, the animal likely floated from the shore out to sea after it died roughly 70 million years ago and settled to the bottom of what was then a very shallow area of the Weddell Sea.
Finally, ice conditions forced the science party to work at a site other than the one they had previously intended.
The team concentrated its investigations on the Naze, a northerly projecting peninsula, where exposed materials represent a period at the end of the Mesozoic Era, a span of time between 248 million to 65 million years ago that includes the Cretaceous Period. At that time, the area was covered by the waters of the continental shelf, roughly 100 to 200 meters (300 to 650 feet) deep.
If confirmed as Case and Martin expect, the new species is only the second Antarctic theropod from the late Cretaceous Period.
Journey to the top of a mountain
At the same time, thousands of miles away, a research team led by veteran dino hunter William Hammer of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., was working in the Antarctic interior on a mountaintop roughly 3,900 meters (13,000 feet) high and near the Beardmore Glacier. They found embedded in solid rock what they believe to be the pelvis of a primitive sauropod, a four-legged, plant-eating dinosaur similar to better-known creatures such as brachiosaurus and diplodocus. Now known as Mt. Kirkpatrick, the area was once a soft riverbed before millions of years of tectonic activity elevated it skyward.
Basing his estimates on the bones excavated at the site, Hammer suggests the new, and as-yet-unnamed, creature was between 1.8 and 2.1 meters (6 and 7 feet) tall and up to 9 meters (30 feet) long and is a primitive sauropod that represents one of the earliest forms of the emerging dinosaur lineage that eventually produced animals more than 30 meters (100 feet) long.
Hammer said several lines of evidence point to the conclusion that his and the discovery by Case and Martin represent two new species yielded up by the rocks of the "Harsh Continent."
"We have so few dinosaur specimens from the whole continent, compared to any other place, that almost anything we find down there is new to science," Hammer said.
NSF Program Officer: Scott Borg, (703) 292-8030, firstname.lastname@example.org
In an archived Web cast of a presentation at the Maryland Science Center in February 2003, William Hammer describes finding Cryolophosaurus ellioti, see http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/events/shackleton/dino.htm.
The University of California at Berkeley maintains a comprehensive Web site that details the natural history of theropods, sauropods and other dinosaurs and a chronology of the geological ages.
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