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Interview with Paleontologist Jim Kirkland On New Dinosaur Find

500 bones per square meter? wow (well, it's a lot to me!)


July 18, 2003 EDT

Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah  Jim Kirkland is digging deep, as usual.
And, as a result, he's flying higher than ever. In a Utah mesa, the
dinosaur expert recently uncovered a huge cache of well-preserved bones
that belonged to a very bird-like meat-eating beast estimated to be
between 125- to 150-million years old.

It's so brand new to scientists, the animal doesn't even have a working
name yet, much less an official moniker to add to well over 1,000 species
of dinosaur that have been identified. 
"I'm charged," Kirkland says of his latest discovery. "I've had some
pretty neat animals covering a spectrum of the kinds of dinosaurs known.
But this is the neatest and best material I've ever had to work with."

The bones of as many as 100 animals  babies and adults, alike  are
scattered in the sediment of a red, flat-topped mesa in Utah, the 100-mile
views from the top of which are as drop-dead scenic as the innards are
rich in prehistoric matter.

"We're guessing 500 bones per square meter," Kirkland says. "That's a lot
of bones. They're all separated. Many, many are extraordinarily
beautifully preserved. The skull material is pristine." 

Questions about this new 15-foot-long animal are as big and numerous as
its scattered bones: Why are there so many and why are they congregated
here, Kirkland wonders. And although he refers to it as a theropod  a
meat-eater  Kirkland has reason to suspect its dining habits: Was this
animal in the process of becoming an omnivore?

"Our new site is in the sediment accumulated in the 25-million-year gap at
the bottom of the Cretaceous period in North America; in the
pebble-mud-stone soils that formed at the end of the Jurassic and before
the first deposition in the early Cretaceous," Kirkland says. "Exactly
where these animals lived (in that gap of time) is anybody's guess. My
guess is at the end of it."

Although Kirkland thinks he knows the lineage to which this new dinosaur
belongs (the bird-like maniraptors) he'll require no small amount of
evidence to prove it, he says, because it so barely belongs.

"This is very important stuff," he explains. "It's a primitive stage  the
beginning of a line that is much better known later, right near the
beginning of the bird-like dinosaur line."