Odd dinosaur discovery fools experts in the field

John Foster, curator of paleontology at the Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, examines the vertebra of a rare sauropod, haplocanthosaurus, found near Snowmass.

Camouflage isn’t known to be one of the assets of late Jurassic plant-eaters, but the weathered bone under study by paleontologist John Foster has fooled more than one expert.

Discovered by Mike Gordon on his grandfather’s land near Snowmass Village in 2005, the bones were first deemed to be uninteresting as they were thought to be those of a plesiosaur, a long-necked marine reptile common in the Jurassic period.

In 2009, Gordon contacted Foster, curator of paleontology at the Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey, who went up to take a look.

“Instantly, John Foster knew it was not a plesiosaur,” Gordon recalled.

Foster, though, said he was fooled for a bit.

The way the bone had been crushed made it appear as though Gordon had uncovered a theropod, or fast-moving meat eater with a smaller frame than that of a sauropod.

Some investigation revealed that the bones belonged not to a theropod, but a sauropod, one of those heavy-footed, big-bodied plant munchers of more than 150 million years ago.

As it turned out, the bone was that of a creature that lumbered through the Jurassic terrain much as its better-known rough contemporaries such as diplodocus or apatosaurus, better known to many as brontosaurus.

The bones Gordon discovered, however, were unusual in that they share a common feature with modern birds.

The animal Gordon discovered is known as haplocanthosaurus, meaning “single-spine lizard,” and the first specimen was found in 1901 in the Morrison formation and named in 1903.

In all, paleontologists have uncovered some 430 sauropods in the Morrison. Ten of those specimens, or about 2 percent, have been identified as haplocanthosaurus. The odds of a sauropod found in the Morrison being one of the better-known denizens of the Jurassic — camarasaurus or apatosaurus — are 5 to 10 percent, Foster said.

“So, it’s a pretty rare beast,” Foster said.

Haplocanthosaurus isn’t just rare, he’s remarkable in a specific way.

That spinal column‚ which by the way stretched out some 60 feet in life, contained a pneumatic system unknown in other sauropods, Foster said.

Foster confirmed the pneumatic system of air sacs along the creature’s spine using the CT scanner at Community Hospital.

“They had these big tubes running along their neck and back,” Foster said, pointing out that the tubes fed into small nodes in the vertebrae, which contained sacs.

Once he showed the scans and bones to experts on haplocanthosaurus, any doubt about the nature of the beast disappeared, Foster said.

The pneumatic system likely supplemented the animal’s lungs and might have played a role in maintaining its warm-blooded body temperature, Foster said.

Though there was some early thought that the creature might simply be a juvenile of another species, the pneumatic system is fully developed, suggesting the creature was an adult when it died.

Additional digging at the site is planned next summer.


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