Why this 300 million-year-old fossil discovered in Utah has the paleontology world buzzing

Rare creature found in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park

The fossilized remains of a critter — scientists are not sure yet if it is a “cousin” to a reptile or a mammal — are lighting up curiosity in the North American paleontology world because it is such a rare find from the Permian age.

“From the period it is in, the rock record, we just don’t get many fossils, especially one as nice as this,” said Adam Marsh, the lead paleontologist at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

The articulated skeletal remains, about 1 1/2 feet long, were unearthed in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, but the Petrified Forest serves as a regional repository and its team joined Canyonlands to remove it.

The fossil is around 300 million years old — give or take a weekend — as Marsh described.

“We’re trying to figure out exactly where it comes in terms of time and how it relates to other fossil localities in that area. So it could probably be as many as you know, 310 million or as young as 290. So we’re kind of just hedging and saying 300 because it’s a nice round number,” he said.

The age, Marsh added, is what makes this fossil unique as well.

“And this is cool, because it’s, you know, 50 million years older than the oldest dinosaur fossil. So it’s kind of cool that it’s, like I said, from a period in Earth’s history where we just don’t have a lot of fossils from in North America especially. So it’s literally groundbreaking in and of itself because almost anything we can find out about this animal is going to be new and exciting.”

Utah has been a treasure trove for fossil discoveries, especially dinosaurs, but this has the potential to peel back even more layers of knowledge.

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The fossilized remains were hauled out in a 60-pound rock from the east side of Canyonlands and await meticulous further examination and documentation.

“We have a professional preparation lab and museum curator and fossil preparers. So, our museum curator will work with Canyonlands and get it catalogued, with a specimen number so it officially becomes a part of the park service collections. And then our team that prepares it will take the plaster bandages off the top, clean up the fossil and do a little bit of exploratory preparation in terms of removing some of the rock around the skeleton,” Marsh said.

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Marsh said when people think they have found a fossil, nine times out 10, it turns out to be a plain old rock.

This discovery was stunning and there was some urgency to get it removed from the elements to prevent any further erosion.

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Canyonlands actually handled the permitting for the removal of the fossilized remains and the critter — whatever it might be — will be officially on record as a Canyonlands find and collection.

After the study is concluded, scientists will write a paper to share with the research community and the general public on what they have discovered.

The fossilized remains of a 300 million-year-old specimen were recently unearthed in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park and transferred to the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, where they will be documented and further examined. Such a finding of a fossil from this period are particularly rare, especially in North America, so scientists are excited to learn more. | National Park Service