Tiny dinosaur found 33 years ago

Creature only recently named and identified by science team

Thirty-three years ago, George Callison and a team of paleontologists from California State University Long Beach were “crawling” around the Fruita Paleontology Area and made a remarkably small discovery: They unearthed the remains of four tiny dinosaurs.

They turned out to be the fossilized remains of the smallest dinosaur ever discovered in North America.

“We knew it was a little, tiny dinosaur. We didn’t know quite what it was,” said the now 69-year-old Callison, a retired paleontologist and an active painter living in Grand Junction. “It is always an exceptional thrill to stumble onto something that you have not seen before and you try to make sense out of it.”

The team originally suspected the tiny bird-like animal to be Compsognathus.

“This was the only other dinosaur in that size range,” he said. “It wasn’t until we found parts of jaws and teeth that we were able to determine otherwise.”

It wasn’t until 33 years later that scientists, led by Richard Butler of the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology in Munich, Germany, and Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, identified and named the miniature dinosaur.

The paleontology team named the dinosaur “Fruitadens haagarorum.”

“Fruitadens comes from a series of rocks, the Morrison Formation, which paleontologists have studied intensively for 130 years, and from which dozens of dinosaur species are already known,” Butler said in a news release from the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

Fruitadens is believed to have lived 150 million years ago, during the late Jurassic period. The creature, standing 6 to 8 inches tall as measured from the ground to its hip, would compare in size to a modern-day pigeon or chicken. It is slightly more than 2 feet long and weighed less than 2 pounds.

What made the find remarkable is the remains are from an adult, not a still-growing juvenile, Callison said.

“Based on the proportions, we were fairly confident to say the bones we found were from an adult, and not only an adult, but an individual who was fully grown,” Callison said.

Media worldwide took notice then, and numerous stories documented his find. The Daily Sentinel’s editorial page editor, Bob Silbernagel, even wrote about the discovery in his book “Dinosaur Stalkers.”

At the time, the dinosaur was simply known as an adult specimen of an Echinodon.

“It probably looked much like a featherless chicken,” except that it had tiny front legs instead of wings, Callison said. And it had a “beak with fangs,” reads a passage of “Dinosaur Stalkers.”

“It had teeth back in the cheek zone similar to the teeth of a present day iguana lizard,” Callison said Wednesday.

The type of teeth told him the animal ate plants. But he also found cutting and nipping type teeth up front, which told him the animal also ate meat. This ability to dine on a wide variety of cuisine, plus the belief among scientists that Fruitadens was agile, allowed this dinosaur to fill a biological niche that is today filled by small mammals, Callison said.

The Los Angeles County Natural History Museum created a drawing of what the dinosaur might look like.

Callison said he is being awarded no prize, trophy or cash for the discovery. And that is OK by him.

“Here is just some more information that adds to our wonderment of dinosaurs,” he said. “It is quite exciting to explore and discover. I think that is part of our genetic background. We are all hunters and gatherers.”


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