A new genus and species of dinosaur was named earlier this month after skeletal remains were discovered in an Alabama creek.
Remains of the world’s newest known dinosaur, Eotrochodon orientalis, were discovered in a creekbank in Montgomery County in 2007. The roughly 83 million-year-old skeleton is 12-13 feet long and is on display at McWane Science Center in Birminhgam.
Earlier this month, after years of excavation and research, the dinosaur was named by the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, effectively legitimizing the discovery and making history in the state of Alabama and the United States.
“This is like a Mona Lisa here,” said Jun Ebersole, the director of collections at McWane Science Center and one of the paleontologists who studied the bones. “More people have been struck by lightning than have named new dinosaurs. There’s probably 900 or less dinosaurs, and most of them were named a couple hundred years ago. It’s just unbelievably rare.”
For about two years, scientists at McWane Science Center and the University of West Alabama carefully cleaned and separated the bones from the surrounding rock. Then a team of researchers – Ebersole, Albert Prieto-Marquez of the University of Bristol in England and Greg Erickson of Florida State University – studied the creature for months.
They determined it was a duck-billed herbivore. What distinguishes its genus and species from previously discovered duck-billed dinosaurs, Ebersole said, is a large crest on its bill.
The one discovered in Alabama – just 12-13 feet long – was likely not completely grown, as adults of the genus and species probably grew 20-30 feet long, Ebersole said. Known as the “cows of the Cretaceous Period,” this dinosaur had a scaly exterior and likely walked on its hind legs, though it could graze on all four legs to eat plants with its grinding teeth.
But the discovery and research had big-picture implications, as well. Adding the recent Alabama discovery to a previous one in New Jersey, scientists were able to determine that duck-billed dinosaurs originated in the eastern U.S., what is broadly referred to as Appalachia.
“It really adds a lot to what we know about dispersal patterns,” Ebersole said. “We now know the island of Appalachia is where these dinosaurs originated.”
Alabama has a rich history in paleontology, specifically dinosaur discoveries. In the southeastern U.S., researchers have named three dinosaurs in the history of the science. All three were from Alabama.
Two of them – the new one and the Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, a relative of T. rex that was found in Montgomery County in 1982 – are on display at McWane. The third – Lophorhothon atopis, which was discovered in Dallas County in the 1940s – is housed in the collections at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
When dinosaurs roamed the planet, the southern half of Alabama was under about 300 feet of water. Although most of the fossils found in the state are the remains of ancient sea creatures, dinosaurs, like the newly discovered one, that roamed the land millions of years ago are also found here as they died, washed into the ocean, sank and embedded into the earth.
“Alabama is famous for the discovery of marine fossils, but for dinosaurs living on land, they are unbelievably hard to find,” Ebersole said. “But, when you look at Appalachia, Alabama is the best place in eastern half of U.S. to find them.
The rarity of the find has led to international acclaim in the past few weeks since the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology article was published Jan. 13.
“This one is the most complete skull of a duck-billed dinosaur ever found in the eastern half of the country, and it’s one of the most complete dinosaurs altogether,” Ebersole said. “For it to happen in Alabama and be an Appalachia dinosaur, and for it to be a new genus and species, and for it to be a primitive duck-bill dinosaur, it’s just unbelievably rare.”