Utah scientists find new dinosaur fossil

/ Source: The Associated Press

It sounds like an exaggeration, but apparently you can't set a backpack down in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without finding a dinosaur. That's exactly what led a scientist to the discovery of a skull of a horned dinosaur that roamed the area 80 million years ago.

The find by paleontologists Jim Kirkland and Don DeBlieux was announced Friday at a conference of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists in Ontario, Canada.

DeBlieux discovered the fossil in 2002 while he was part of a Utah Geological Survey team conducting an inventory of paleontological resources in the national monument. He was taking a photo of another site when he made the find.

"I stopped and put my backpack down on a sandstone ledge and saw bone," DeBlieux said in a statement.

The protruding fossil turned out to be most of the skull of a ceratopsid, a smaller and older relative of Triceratops.

The horned dinosaur was a plant eater and probably 15 feet long and 6 feet tall at the shoulders — roughly the size of today's rhinoceros.

Due to the fossil's size and the remote area where it was found, it took the group about three years to get the block of rock containing the skull out of the monument.

After whittling the rock to 1,000 pounds, it was shipped out by helicopter. The Grand Staircase-Escalante monument is located near the Utah-Arizona border and is intersected by a relatively small number of dirt roads, some of them barely passable.

The Utah Geological Survey said the fossil is unique for having two nose horns. It also is the first of this group of dinosaurs to have been found south of Montana.

DeBlieux and Kirkland could not be reached Friday through a message left at the Ontario conference.

The fossil should have a formal name in about a year and be ready for display at the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah, chief curator Scott Sampson said.

Sampson said there is a "treasure trove" of fossils in the 1.9 million acres that make up the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument. There have been other significant discoveries in recent years.

"People think we've already found all the dinosaurs, but we're just really scratching the surface," he said. "Virtually every new animal we're pulling out of Grand Staircase is a new species."

Sampson said a group from the University of Utah has found what is believed to be another close relative of the dinosaur announced Friday. It's in the process of being removed for further study.

"We trimmed it down as much as we could," he said. "We can't make the size of the block any smaller so we're looking for a bigger helicopter."