Discovering dinos: Midstate professor explains how it’s done

Digital Originals

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Recently a team of researchers published a paper on the website, detailing the discovery and naming of a new species of ceratopsian, or horned dinosaur. (Think Triceratops.) Harrisburg University professor Dr. Steven Jasinski is part of the team. We sat down with him, and he talked us through the process of getting a new species from fossils in the ground to published results, starting with the discovery of the specimen.

“This was found in an area of south-central New Mexico,” Jasinski said. “Near a town called Truth or Consequences. And it was actually collected close to a place called Elephant Butte Reservoir.”

Amateur fossil-hunters discovered the bones and informed the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science about them. The museum excavated them in the 1980s. The fossils then sat in storage until just a few years ago.

“We started really doing a lot more work, in about 2015 or so,” Jasinski said. “That’s when we really started to look more in-depth both what had been collected and the new material that was being collected, to determine what was happening.”

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Originally the dinosaur was identified as a torosaurus, a horned dinosaur similar to the well-known Triceratops. (In fact, there’s a bit of a controversy about whether torosaurus and triceratops are the same species.) But when they started to examine the skeleton “We decided there were some things that were not quite right.” Jasinski said. “We had to reinvestigate things.”

To their good fortune, they had a lot of dinosaurs to work with.

“It may not sound impressive, but we got a quarter of the skeleton. Most of the time when you find dinosaurs, you’re finding single bones.”

One bone, in particular, suggested this was not a torosaurus.

“One of our researchers looked at one of the elements we call the jugal,” Jasinski said. “Think of the cheek, our cheekbone, that’s essentially what you’re looking at. And these dinosaurs have a large horn coming off of that cheek. That one researcher said he was pretty certain it was not torosaurus. But what that just meant is it was not what people thought that it was, it didn’t mean it was definitely new, there was a lot of work to go into, and if it’s not torosaurus, what is it.”

The frill provided more clues.

“When you think of a triceratops, they have horns and a frill, that frill on the back of the head is really, really important. For our dinosaur, Sierraceratops, some of the most important features deal with portions of that frill that are distinct from all the other animals.”

The research team grew.

“Some of the members of the research team were not there originally,” says Jasinski, “And some were brought in a little bit later anyway. So there were parts that we did all together, looking, discussing things, and parts, especially a lot towards the end, and a lot more of the finer details was done online back and forth between us.”

A lot was done over the internet, but a lot of legwork happened as well.

“Part of that was certainly sending portions of the specimen out to get a more thorough look, and part was doing a lot of work in traveling to other museums, looking at other specimens directly along with gathering a lot of research wherever we could get that.”

“When you look at dinosaurs you look at lots of bones, lots of elements, and you start gathering information from that. As you start gathering information you determine that these seem to be distinct because we have these five, six, seven different features, that all seem to show this is something else, it’s not what we think of when anyone thinks of any other type of dinosaur.”

The slow accumulation of details confirmed the dinosaur was a new species, which they named Sierraceratops turneri. But the details revealed something else-not only is it a new species, it represents a whole new genus.

“Genus and species are the way we classify organisms, animals and plants,” says Jasinski. “Each individual animal is a species; the genus tells us how things are related. So if you think about, say we take the genus canis. And canis is a very easy one. Things like canus familiarus, which is the domestic dog, but you also have canis latrans, which is the coyote, and you have canis lupus, which is the wolf.”

So Sierraceratops is a genus with only one species-at least for now. But what’s the story behind the species name-turneri? That, says Jasinki, is a tribut to a well-known media mogul.

“It is named after Ted Turner, so Turneri, and that is because it’s on his land, and we got permission from him and the people overseeing that land to actually dig up the fossils.”

Then their conclusions had to be published.

“So we’ve been working on the writing itself for a couple of years, several years essentially.” Jasinski says. “And then the process of getting it published, which is sending it out to other scientists, and having it reviewed to make sure everything is accurate and ok, before it fully becomes published. That normally takes approximately a year, can take longer than that, sometimes it can take a little bit less, but not normally, so we’ve been going through the publishing process for about another year to get to the point where we are now.”

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