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2010 was banner year for dinosaur discoveries

PROVO — In Utah's arid, wind-swept deserts, paleontologists would be shocked to go an entire year without stumbling across the remains of a rock-encrusted dinosaur. Yet naming eight new species in 2010 was beyond their annual optimism.

"It's actually a banner year," said Mark Loewen, research curator and paleontologist for the Utah Museum of Natural History and adjunct assistant professor in geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. "Even back in the 1870s, when people first discovered dinosaurs here, there was never a year in which eight dinosaurs were named."

Utah's oldest, new stars include creatures like the Abydosaurus mcintoshi, Utahceratops gettyi and Hippodraco scutodens, horned, spiked and long-tailed creatures who inhabited Utah as far back as 125 million years ago.

"I'm not sure I could say one is more important than the other," said Dan Chure, park paleontologist at Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal. "They're all interesting depending on what type of scientific problem you're working on. Some are more complete than others, but they're all providing evidence on the evolution of dinosaurs that is important."

The carnivorous terrors and prehistoric plant eaters were all found on Bureau of Land Management land in eastern Utah, except one, which was found in Dinosaur National Monument on National Park Service land.

Although the actual discovery of bones may have been several years ago, the process of excavating, lab research and getting a paper published in a journal constitute a dinosaur's official "naming" — which happened eight times this year, said Don DeBlieux, paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey.

DeBlieux's favorite was the Diabloceratops, which included a partial skull he and James Kirkland found, which sports two massive horns and several smaller ridges.

Before proclaiming it a new species, they first traveled to museums around the country and in Canada to study other ceratopsians, he said, a common practice following the discovery of any potentially new species of dinosaur.

A much smaller and completely hornless dinosaur, the Seitaad ruessi defied expectations with its discovery in Utah's red rocks, a highly unlikely place to find dinosaur bones, said excavator Loewen.

The beast is named after the Navajo's, "Seit'aad" which means a sand-desert monster that swallowed its victims in sand dunes. An appropriate name, given that this entire fossil was engulfed in the petrified sand, Loewen said.

"We're pretty convinced that as far as the complete record of dinosaurs, Utah has the best record in the world," Loewen said. "But what we don't expect to find is dinosaurs in those sand-dunes areas. That's not a place where we go look."

The thin, long-tailed dinosaur, found by local historian and artist Joe Pachak as he hiked near Bluff, is an ancestor of the more easily recognized, long-necked sauropods such as Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus and Apatosaurus.

However, the Seitaad is more closely related to dinosaurs in Argentina and Europe than others in North America, Loewen said. Such a find gives paleontologists additional clues about how dinosaurs roamed on the once super-continent of Pangaea.

"There's such a huge array of life that's been on this earth and we're just beginning to get a handle on it," said Brooks Britt, a BYU geology professor who unearthed the plant-eating Abydosaurus mcintoshi early this year. "Now we're focusing on new segments of time, new layers of rock. In other words, we're seeing things that simply haven't been sampled."

Scientists have estimated how many dinosaurs they expect to find in certain areas, and Britt said Utah paleontologists seem to always exceed those expectations.

"It's a great time to be a paleontologist," he added.

Utah is a prime dinosaur-discovering location for several reasons, paleontologists said.

Millions of years ago, when Utah was much lower and even under water at times, sediments washed in to cover and preserve the bones of fallen dinosaurs.

Later, when Utah became higher and drier it left canyons, rocks and mesas with bones visible or even protruding. And without tree roots to eat through buried bones or stop erosion, nature could continually carve away at the sediments.

Other states may have extensive dinosaur deposits, but Chure said they're difficult or impossible to find because of significant tree or human populations.

While many of Utah's dinosaur discoveries are new and groundbreaking, other finds are duplicates, but they still provide valuable clues to unlocking the past, Chure said.

"It doesn't seem that there's any end in sight in terms of finding new dinosaurs, or better understanding the biology of the ones we've found," he said. "It was a great year, but next year could be just as good or even better."

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Dinosaurs named in Utah in 2010

1. Abydosaurus mcintoshi - Feb. 23

2. Seitaad ruessi - March 23

3. Diabloceratops eatoni - May 28

4. Utahceratops gettyi - Sept. 22

5. Kosmoceratops richardsoni - Sept. 22

6. Hippodraco scutodens - Nov. 22

7. Iguanacolossus fortis - Nov. 22

8. Geminiraptor suarezarum - Dec. 15

(All discovered on Bureau of Land Management land except No. 1, which was found on National Park Service land)

*Source: BLM