Fruita museum reels in prehistoric ‘toothy terror’
A giant predator of the seas, unearthed this week from the mud in which it lay for 75 million years, could be on display as soon as the spring at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita.
Volunteers and staff members from the Museum of Western Colorado rolled out plaster-clad parts of the skull and jaw of the toothy terror of the Western Inland Sea, as we have come to know the shallow waters that covered much of what is now the middle of North American during the late Cretaceous period.
Xiphactinus is well known in Kansas, Alabama and Georgia, and its discovery in the mancos shale of western Colorado marks a rare paleontological find in the soft bottom of the Grand Valley, John Foster, curator of paleontology at Dinosaur Journey, said as the museum crew loosened two pedestals, each containing as much as a ton of fossil, surrounding rock and plaster.
The jaw and other skull parts should be relatively easy to separate from the surrounding rock, given the softness of the shale, Foster said.
With the fish’s departure Thursday from her backyard, Susan Webster presented the museum with a $500 check from her employer, Klee Associates, in honor of what her family dubbed “Jed the fish.” Her nephew, Jed Smith, discovered the first of the fossilized remains of xiphactinus about a decade ago, and over the years, relatives dig up scales, bits of vertebra and rib bones.
The museum began excavating the find in April.
Discovering xiphactinus in western Colorado “opens up a whole new area of research” for students and paleontologists interested in creatures other than the dinosaurs found in the late-Cretaceous era Morrison formation, museum Executive Director Mike Perry said.
The largest specimens of xiphactinus are in the 19- to 20-foot range, and estimates are that Jed the fish was probably about 12 feet long, making him a “rambunctious teenager,” Foster said.
Much of the fish’s remains were scattered about the sea floor, prompting Foster to hope that other parts of the fish will be discovered as the rock is removed from around the jaw and skull parts.
Much of the fish’s remains were scattered, probably as a result of marauding sharks. Foster said.
One shark left a calling card, a tooth, that was uncovered during the excavation, providing the only clue as to how Jed the fish met his unfortunate fate.
Foster said he hopes the jaw and skull can be prepared over the winter and unveiled in the spring.