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Montana sauropod

From: Ben Creisler bh480@scn.org

In case this news story has not been mentioned:
Bones of dinosaur found north of Billings may be new species

  Ancient 'tanker truck': Scientists glean clues from dinosaur find  
By MIKE STARK Of The Gazette Staff
 Chances are, no one's ever seen a mug quite like Ralph's. Uncovered last
summer, the long-necked, giant dinosaur with a walnut-size brain appears to
be a new species, according to Malta paleontologist Nate Murphy, who led
the dig at the foot of the Little Snowy Mountains.  The discovery may
reveal crucial information about the history of the once-dominant
plant-eating giants known as sauropods. The latest find seems to provide a
previously undocumented link between two similar types of dinosaurs. 
"We're bridging a gap here," said Murphy, the curator of paleontology for
the Judith River Dinosaur Institute in Malta.  Murphy and his team
recovered the complete neck, skull, teeth and other bones from the 20-ton
dinosaur believed to have roamed the flood plains of ancient Montana 150
million years ago.      

The delicate skull was a particularly rare find. Only about two dozen
sauropod skulls have ever been found, and Murphy estimates that 90 percent
of those were flattened or broken when they were buried. Ralph's skull was
mostly intact.

Murphy will show off the skull and bones, along with other dinosaur
specimens and displays, at the annual Science Expo on March 18 at Montana
State University-Billings.

"This is an extraordinary find," said Virginia Tidwell, a paleontologist at
the Denver Museum of Natural History and co-editor of the recent book
"Thunder Lizards," which focused on sauropods.

The scientists have not yet gone through the formal process of describing
the species in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but the skulls and other
portions have been shown to several sauropod experts.

"Informally, they've confirmed (it) looked liked nothing they've seen
before," said Tidwell, who examined the specimens last summer.

The first hints of the dinosaur's existence came nearly 20 years ago, when
rancher Dave Hein saw some bone fragments at the bottom of a gully in the
foothills of the Little Snowy Mountains.

Hein and his son collected three vertebrae and 10 ribs a few years ago, and
then got in touch with Murphy.

The initial focus of the dig was a stegosaurus, a vegetarian dinosaur with
a spiked tail, small head and triangular plates running down its spine.

But Murphy also felt the tug of a nearby sauropod.

Soon, they were uncovering a lower leg bone, an 11-foot neck, a 6-foot rib,
several peg-shaped teeth, the lower jaw and, most importantly, the
upside-down skull.

As far as Murphy and others can tell, Ralph -- named after the land's
original homesteader -- pitched over in a stream when it died. Some of the
bones may have been washed away in a flood, but the rest was entombed and
preserved in a load of silty soil.

The found bones indicate that the stubby-legged dinosaur stood 18 to 20
feet tall at the head and was 40 to 45 feet long. The huge ribs shielded a
gut that sloshed with decaying food and a few rocks rolling around to help

"This guy would be like a tanker truck," Murphy said of its size.

In its day, the dinosaur likely roamed over a rolling, arid flood plain
common in the late Jurassic period, which started about 210 million years
ago and lasted about 70 million years.

The dinosaurs probably wandered long distances in search of food and water
and had to keep a keen eye out for flesh-eating predators.

A few of Ralph's bones had teeth marks, indicating that scavengers may have
fed on its body after it died.

Murphy recently brought the skull and neck to Billings Clinic for a CT scan
in hopes of getting a three-dimensional digital view of the bones.

Unfortunately, dirt and rocks were packed too tightly inside the dinosaur's
skull to get a good look at its brain, Murphy said. They did find an
abnormality halfway down its esophagus, a tennis-ball-size lump that that
might have been formed when Ralph tried to swallow something big and
pointy, Murphy speculated.

Some of the most interesting work has been looking at the configuration of
the dinosaur's skull, especially the large nasal holes on the front of its

Over time, the location of the nostrils changed as the sauropods developed.
Based on where the nostrils are located on Ralph, Murphy and others think
the dinosaur falls somewhere between cousins camarasaurus and brachiosaurus.

Paleontologists have long been interested in the evolution of sauropods,
how they're related and why they show up in some time periods but not

Adding the latest discovery to the list of known sauropods helps to fill
out the roster of dinosaurs during that period and gives a fuller picture
of what life on Earth was like 150 million years ago.

"When we get the opportunity to see a skull as nice as this one, it really
helps pull the picture together with regard to the sauropod lineage tree,"
Murphy said. 

Published on Wednesday, March 08, 2006.
Last modified on 3/8/2006 at 12:23 am

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