New Dinosaur Named After Garden of Gods
Colorado Springs has a dinosaur to call its own, a beast that’s never been found anywhere else in the world.
Scientists planned to announce Saturday at Garden of the Gods that century-old assumptions about a dinosaur skull found in the park in the late 1800s are wrong. The fossils don’t belong to the type of dinosaur — the camptosaurus — that early bone hunters thought it did.
It seems the skull fragments belong to a dino that’s new to science, a conclusion that sent ripples through the rockin’ world of paleontology. The scientist who made the discovery — Ken Carpenter, vertebrate paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science — named the new creature Theiophytalia kerri, which loosely translates to "belonging to the Garden of the Gods."
"I think it’s fun that Garden of the Gods has its very own dinosaur," said Bonnie Frum, director of the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, where a replica of the skull is on display.
100 million years ago …
The world "Theio" knew was very different from what we see today at Garden of the Gods.
The dino lived about 125 million to 100 million years ago, and probably spent most of his time doing what he did best — tearing leaves off the vegetation with his beaklike mouth and then grinding them down with his back teeth. The 25- to 30-foot-long dinosaur stood on its hind legs most of the time, so it could reach high into trees, with a tail that stuck straight out rather than dragging on the ground.
The beast lived on the edge of the massive inland sea that was creeping south over North America and turned this area into a warm, lush shoreline. The shallow sea nearby teemed with marine life, including sharks, fish, clams and reptiles such as plesiosaurs, while early birds lived along the shores and fished in the waters. Hike around the ridges on the eastern edges of Garden of the Gods and you will see shells and marine fossils embedded in the rock layers.
The ancestral Rockies had already given way to the forces of erosion, and the second set of Rockies hadn’t yet risen from the ground, so Theio would have roamed relatively flat vistas with a herd of a dozen or more. Small, carnivorous dinosaurs roamed here at the same time, along with armored plant eaters.
Who knows how Theio died? Maybe a group of small meat-eaters got him, or he starved, or drowned in a flood.
But the dinosaur’s skeleton probably found its way into the sea, where it was covered with the sand and sediment that eventually fossilized it.
And there it sat for 100 million years, while the second set of Rockies burst from the earth and eroded, and then the third set of Rockies — the mountains we’re familiar with — were born.
Those mountainmaking forces pushed the sedimentary rock toward the surface, and then erosion finally exposed Theio once again.
A century ago …
James Hutchinson Kerr graduated from Yale University in 1865, and tuberculosis prompted him to head west to find a cure.
The air and altitude of Colorado Springs suited him well, so Kerr settled here and became a professor of geology and mining at Colorado College soon after the school was founded in 1874.
He began to prospect for fossils in what is now Garden of the Gods park. This handwritten account of his finds is in the special collections at Colorado College:
"In 1878, I discovered in one of the ridges east of the red rocks forming the east boundary of the Garden of the Gods, portions of 21 different sea monsters that had been caught as in a basin, in one of Earth’s early paroxisms. …Most of these bones and some of the casts were boxed up for Colorado College. The college at that time having no place to store such things, the boxes with other things were placed in barns and cellars and nearly all have been lost."
Records are sketchy, but it appears that Kerr excavated dinosaur-skull fragments in the ridge, and later contacted Othniel Charles Marsh, a fellow Yale man and one of the most aggressive and successful dinosaur hunters of the 19th century.
That’s when Theio got caught up in The Bone Wars.
A bitter rivalry between Marsh and fellow bone hunter Edward Drinker Cope drove American paleontology to new heights — and new depths.
The former friends employed crews to race around the American West to collect as many fossils as they could, and supposedly even spied on each other’s digs and used bribery and bullying to get their hands on coveted bones.
The two men took credit for an astonishing number of finds: Marsh is credited with discovering the stegosaurus, diplodocus and allosaurus, for example.
But they also are accused of sloppy science in their mad rush to outdo each other. And some of their mistakes took generations to correct.
"They got pretty nasty with each other," Carpenter said.
"I suspect that Marsh obtained this specimen from Kerr by maybe paying him off. I don’t know for sure, but money talks."
Marsh got the Garden of the Gods fossil in 1886 and quickly identified it as a camptosaurus from the Jurassic period. Then he sent it back east to the Yale Peabody Museum.
Carpenter said Marsh was being flooded by specimens from his many digs, including similar camptosaurus skulls found in Wyoming, so it was a natural conclusion.
"I think it was the best he could do at the time," Carpenter said. "It’s only in hindsight, now that we have better skulls, to show this thing is different."
Then Theio was forgotten again, lost to obscurity in a museum drawer.
A decade ago …
Melissa Walker began researching the natural history of the area in 1994. Then program coordinator for Garden of the Gods, she hoped to gather accurate information for large murals inside the new visitor center.
She enrolled in a paleontology conference and talked to geologists, but none of the local experts knew of any dinosaur fossils found in Colorado Springs — until Ken Carpenter found something in his files about Kerr’s 19th-century
As the Garden of the Gods visitor center prepared a mural and display on its camptosaurus, Carpenter and his colleague Kathleen Brill started a fresh investigation of the 100 million-year-old bones. The detectives had the skull but nothing else.
They eventually discovered that soil still adhering to the skull wasn’t really from the Jurassic period as originally thought, but from the Cretaceous period millions of years later, and they matched it to a quartermile-long ridge of Dakota sandstone in the park.
Then they examined the skull more closely and noted several differences between this mystery creature and a camptosaurus — it was more advanced on the evolutionary timeline and more closely related to an iguanodon.
But it didn’t look exactly like anything known to science.
Ten years after first seeing the fossil, Carpenter and Brill felt confident enough to name it Theiophytalia kerri and declare a new genus and species. Several new species are discovered each year, but most of them are dug out of the ground rather than museum drawers.
"What makes it exciting it that this is one of the few dinosaurs from the Colorado Springs area, it’s from the Garden of the Gods, and it’s something new to science," Carpenter said.
No one plans to dig up Garden of the Gods searching for more fossils, but Carpenter will keep digging up bones elsewhere and searching for clues about the early Cretaceous world in which this beast lived.
For paleontologists, he said, "It’s just another piece to the puzzle of understanding the evolution of iguanodon. What’s surprising is that iguanodons are proving to be far more diverse in variety than ever thought."
Theiophytalia kerri might be the key to another mystery.
Dinosaur Ridge outside of Denver is covered in footprints from a mystery iguanodon that didn’t seem to leave behind any skeletons, and Carpenter has been wondering for years what creature created them. The time is right, since the footprints were left in the Dakota formation, just like this skull. The size is right.
"We may have the culprit right here," Carpenter said.
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125 million-100 million years ago: Theiophytalia kerri roams the earth.
1878: James Kerr, professor at Colorado College, finds a fossil skull at Garden of the Gods.
1886: O.C. Marsh, a renowned dinosaur hunter, obtains the skull from Kerr. He identifies it as a camptosaurus and sends it to the Yale Peabody Museum.
1886-1995: The fossil rests safely at Yale, and is largely forgotten in Colorado Springs.
1996: To make a cast of a camptosaurus fossil for the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, scientists go to Yale, retrieve the skull and return it to Colorado. Ken Carpenter of the Denver Museum of Science & Nature suspects the fossil is not a camptosaurus.
1997: The fossil replica is given to Colorado Springs and put on display at the visitor center as a camptosaurus.
2006: Carpenter and Kathleen Brill conclude their research on the fossil skull and determine that it is a new genus and species, which they name Theiophytalia kerri.
May 24, 2008: Carpenter announces their findings and the camptosaurus display at the visitor center is corrected.