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10 Fleet-Footed Facts About Coelophysis

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Matt Celeskey

Coelophysis was but a humble player in an ecosystem teeming with strange and wonderful creatures. Yet this early dino proved to be remarkably successful, leaving not only a treasure trove of fossils in its wake, but also a hunter’s-eye look at the world it called home.

1. Some of the Oldest-Known Wishbones Belonged to Coelophysis.

Technically known as “furculae,” these forked structures are formed when an animal’s collar bones fuse. Sadly, as of this writing, the actual wish-granting ability of Coelophysis furculae has yet to be empirically verified.

2. Its Name Means “Hollow Form.”

Ryan Somma

Like most modern dinosaurs (a.k.a.: birds), this agile predator had hollow limb bones which lightened its frame.

3. … And, By the Way, Coelophysis is Also Part of a Heated Naming Controversy.

Wikimedia Commons

The whole thing started as a bad joke. In 1969, paleontologist Mike Raath discovered a new carnivorous dino he called Syntarsus (“Fused Ankle”). Years later, a group of insect scientists—led by Michael Ivie of Montana State University—learned that the name Syntarsus had already been given to a beetle. Since they’d caught the blunder, Ivie’s team had the right to formally rechristen Raath’s dinosaur.

So what new moniker did they come up with? “Megapnosaurus,” which literally means “Big, Dead Lizard.” Raath wasn’t amused. Apart from failing to contact him before tampering with his animal, these would-be comedians added insult to injury by giving it a purposefully stupid name. However, many specialists now contend that “Megapnosaurus” and Coelophysis really belonged to the same genus. If true, the word Coelophysis (being considerably older) has seniority and—hence—would cancel out Ivie and company’s infamous alternative. 

4. It’s the Official State Fossil of New Mexico.

Wikimedia Commons

Coelophysis first came to scientific light in the “Land of Enchantment” during America’s gilded age and is prominently displayed at museums and colleges all over the 47th state.

5. Coelophysis Shared its Habitat With Some Truly Incredible Animals.

Wikimedia Commons

Back in the late Triassic period (roughly 227-205 million years ago), North America was also home to an eclectic array of non-dinosaurian reptiles, including the heavily-armored aetosaurs, semi-aquatic phytosaurs, and ferocious rauisuchians. Some bore a striking resemblance to present-day critters while others seem like the products of a cheesy sci-fi flick. As biologist Kevin Padian once put it, “Being in the Triassic [would have been] like visiting the intergalactic bar that Luke Skywalker encounters in the original Star Wars movie: the characters look weird but vaguely familiar … and most of them would kill you as soon as look at you.” 

6. Georgia O’Keeffe Found Coelophysis Intriguing.

Ryan Somma

Located in northern New Mexico, Ghost Ranch has become one of the western hemisphere’s most famous bone beds thanks to the discovery of several hundred Coelophysis specimens in the property’s rocky outcrops. O’Keeffe purchased a house there in 1940, and used to enjoy visiting local paleontologists at the ranch’s dig sites.

7. Coelophysis Was Briefly Acquitted of Cannibalism.

NHM

Talk about bad press! In 1947, two well-preserved specimens were exposed with what appeared to be the corpses of smaller Coelophysis lodged in their guts. Before you could shout “Hannibal Lecter,” journalists leapt to label the dinosaur a cannibal.

Decades later, Coelophysis was seemingly absolved of this charge. A 2002 re-examination showed that one defendant in our trial had merely fallen onto a nearby juvenile before expiring. Meanwhile, it turned out that the other suspect’s belly actually contained a crocodile-like reptile and not a member of its own species. Case closed, right? Not so fast.

Fossilized feces peppered with bits of baby Coelophysis bones have also turned up inside other skeletons’ intestinal cavities, practically proving that the dino was guilty as charged all along.

8. According to Some Experts, Coelophysis Bit like a Komodo Dragon.

Wikimedia Commons

Pointing to the dimensions of its jaws and the blade-like shape of its teeth, paleontologist Stephen E. Jasinski argues that Coelophysis’ mouth was designed to inflict “slashing” bites as these man-sized monitor lizards do today.

9. Coelophysis Was Originally Unearthed During an Ugly Showdown Called “The Bone Wars.”

Ryan Somma

This fossil-hunting feud was so epic that it frankly deserves its own grandiose HBO miniseries (“Game of Bones”, anyone?). Edward Drinker Cope and Othneil Charles Marsh were rival scientists based on the east coast. From 1877 to 1892, each man toiled to out-perform his adversary in the field—and tarnish his reputation back at home. Underhanded briberies abounded, precious fossils were deliberately destroyed, and even the federal government was dragged into their fray. Before the dust finally settled, several now-iconic dino species—including Coelophysis, Triceratops, and Stegosaurus—had been discovered.

10. NASA once Launched a Coelophysis Skull Into Orbit.

We defy anyone to come up with a topic cooler than dinosaurs in space. On January 22nd, 1998, the Endeavor shuttle took off for an eight-day mission. Aboard this vessel was one of the oddest hitchhikers imaginable: a Coelophysis skull sent to “symbolize the bond between Earth’s history and mankind’s future.” After visiting Russia’s Mir station, the prehistoric passenger was returned to its native planet.

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Denver Museum of Nature & Science
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Construction Workers in Colorado Discover 66-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Skeleton
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Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Construction projects have yielded some pretty amazing ancient finds: ancient ports, Stone Age homes, forgotten cemeteries, burial grounds, and even the bones of King Richard III. Now, The Denver Post reports that workers in Thornton, Colorado, just north of Denver, recently discovered a 66-million-year-old adult triceratops skull, along with other bones, while breaking ground for the city's new public safety facility. It's an incredibly rare find as most of the fossils found in the region are about 12,000 years old.

Instead of digging on—which may have destroyed the skeleton—the workers contacted experts to take a closer look. Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, was called to the scene to examine the bones.

"This is what we as curators dream about—getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it's not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!" Sertich said in a statement.

Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the Thornton triceratops skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

So far, scientists and volunteer diggers have unearthed the skull, two horns, a portion of the dinosaur's frill, shoulder bones, the beak at the front of the lower jaw, and ribs and vertebrae. The skeleton appears to be separated, indicating that the dinosaur may have died and lain on the ground for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, according to The Washington Post. As it decayed, its bones and flesh fell apart, and other dinosaurs, like T. rex, may have even taken a nibble at the corpse.

Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Experts say the triceratops skeleton could be the most complete Cretaceous dinosaur ever discovered in the Front Range region, and one of the oldest fossils. They've also noted that the newly discovered dino fits a larger pattern: When found in the Denver area, triceratops are typically half the size of similar ones that once lived in the Dakotas and Montana.

A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed in Thornton, Colorado.
A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

"We don't really know why," Sertich said in a Facebook Live broadcast. "Even though we have hundreds of triceratops from the American West, we only have three good skulls. And this might be one of the best skeletons to tell us why Denver triceratops are smaller than all of their cousins everywhere else."

[h/t The Denver Post]

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© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum
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SUE the T. Rex Is Getting a Makeover
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© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum

Our lives are constantly changing—even those of us who are already dead. The beloved fossilized T. rex skeleton known as SUE will soon be treated to a makeover and new digs at The Field Museum in Chicago.

SUE’s move is motivated by more than just luxury; the museum needs to clear out its great hall to make room for the largest dinosaur ever discovered. A private donor has bestowed the museum with a full-size cast of the Argentinean titanosaur Patagotitan mayorum.

Illustration of a titanosaur cast in a great hall.
The Field Museum

The touchable 122-foot-long marvel will stretch across Stanley Field Hall and upward into the second story. SUE will be disassembled in 2018 and eventually relocated to a fancy new suite in another hall along with other fossil specimens.

Illustration comparing the size of a titanosaur, a human, and a T. rex.
The Field Museum

“At 40.5 feet long, she’s the world’s biggest T. rex, but in that giant hall, people sometimes remark that she’s smaller than they expected,” senior exhibitions project manager Hilary Hansen said in a statement.

“By putting her in her own gallery in our Evolving Planet exhibition, she’ll be put into the proper context of her fellow dinosaurs, and she’ll dominate the room.”

(SUE’s sex is unknown, but many museum staffers take a cue from the fossil’s ladylike name and use female pronouns.)

With the new setup comes a whole new look. The SUE we see today is incomplete; when the skeleton was assembled in 2000, dinosaur curators omitted one group of bones, unsure where to put them. They’ve since figured it out. The bones are gastralia, which cage the stomach area like a lower set of ribs.

Dinosaur gastralia arrayed  in a bed of sand.
© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum

T. rex had a bulging belly,” associate curator of dinosaurs Pete Makovicky said in the statement. “It wasn’t sleek and gazelle-like the way you might think.”

Over the last two decades since SUE’s assembly we’ve learned a lot about the way SUE and family looked and moved. Makovicky and his colleagues also plan to tinker with SUE’s posture so that upon the grand re-debut in 2019, “she’ll be walking rather than skulking.”

Or strutting, more accurately. The gloating dinosaur’s Twitter bio now reads “Private Suite Haver.”

Never one to be left out of the conversation, SUE issued a public comment, writing, “For years now, I've been pitching this to the Museum. A room with a better defensible position against velociraptor attacks and reduced exposure to possible meteorite collisions. Finally, the mammals in charge have come to their senses."

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