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San Diego Paleontologist Helps Discover New Species Of Dinosaur

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This 120-million-year-old dinosaur is almost twice the age of the T-Rex.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The discovery of dinosaur bones has been increasing in recent years as both technology and search efforts improve around the world. But it's still rare to discover a new species of dinosaur. A paleontologist at San Diego natural history museum is one of a team of scientists who has discovered and identified a brand new type of dinosaur. The find is being published today in the peer review journal. The anatomical record journeyman is a member of that scientific team. Dr. Ashley post of the San Diego natural history museum. And Ashley, welcome to the program. Hi, pleasure to be here. Now tell us the backstory. If you would have this new dinosaur species, where was it originally found and how did you come to work on it? There's a part of Northern China which sort of abuts the border with the Koreas called Liaoning province. And in the mid nineties, there started to be a number of really interesting discoveries there.

Speaker 1: 00:55 Um, and there was a buzz about this in the paleontological community. These were dinosaurs with feathers and not birds with feathers. Cause as we know and as our kids off to remind us, dinosaurs, uh, gave rise to the birds, which means the birds themselves are actually the survivors of that mass extinction. They themselves are dinosaurs, but these were proper not bird dinosaurs that had feathers. Um, and so in recent years, this has been really a growth industry in the dinosaur community. Uh, there's a lot of really interesting information about this transition has come out of this part of China. So a number of years ago, um, this specimen that I got the chance to work on was discovered and, uh, given to the Dallian museum of natural history, which is, uh, in the capital of this province. Um, and my advisor for my master's, which I was doing at the time at Montana state university, uh, had good contacts with that museum and they'd worked together on a number of projects.

Speaker 1: 01:50 So dr Dave Rickio, um, at MSU was, uh, able to have a discussion with their, uh, curators. And they invited me to come work on a specimen. And at the time we didn't know that it would turn out to be this new species. What is the name of this new species? So we named it long Bohai ANSYS, uh, oolong means the dancing dragon and we sort of named it that because we wanted a name that was Chinese. Um, and the suffix long meaning dragon is something that has sort of been the Chinese version of Saurus if you've heard of a brachiosaurus or train of stories. Um, that terrible lizard ending has been really common, um, in naming dinosaurs. And as these dinosaurs became famous from China, um, the Chinese suffix, uh, has sort of taken over and the, the dancing part comes because not only is this a tiny dinosaur, it's about the size of a house cat.

Speaker 1: 02:41 Um, but it also was probably very nimble and quick on its feet, um, and also on its wings and it had feathers on its front limbs and its back limbs. This is a quick little animal and, uh, the way that it's preserved, we have the whole skeleton, um, looks as though it's doing a Russian dance and throwing its head back in the, of, of it's joyful pose. So we wanted something that reflected that. Um, that gracile nature. No, this is an extremely old species. How does it compare in age with the more well known T-Rex? So this animal is about 120 million years old. Um, so that's younger. Uh, then the oldest birds. Um, so this is, uh, a branch, a sister, uh, two, two birds. Um, it's not a direct ancestor, um, and it's almost twice as old as transfer Shrek. So if you think that's old, then we're doubling down on that.

Speaker 1: 03:30 What can you see in a fossil that's that old? Actually the preservation is incredible. So not only do we have the feathers, which I already mentioned, um, but we actually have the, uh, the nails so often the bones of the tips of the toes and fingers of uh, extinct animals are preserved, but just like your fingernails, um, their claws tend to rot away. But the preservation in these Lake beds in this area of China is so good that, um, those Kratos structures are, are actually still there. And also the inside of the bones is so well preserved and we look at the inside of the bones, um, by cutting them open and looking at them under a microscope. And that's why it's so important that the preservation is good cause we can actually see where the original bone cells were and how the bone itself grew, which lets us understand a lot about the growth of these animals.

Speaker 1: 04:17 Is there any way you can explain to a non paleontologist how you know that this is a new species? Yeah. So when we're, when we're comparing dinosaur species or any extinct species or even living species, what we look for is actually a combination of the similarities to other animals and then the differences. And so the similarities let us understand which animals they're closely related to. Um, and the differences allow us to determine if there's different enough that it's useful to give it a new name. And so this animal has a number of really interesting features. Um, some of them are very specific anatomical differences, lengths of bones and larger or smaller processes on those bones. Uh, and some of them are pretty clear. Um, one thing that's really weird about this animal is that it has two really long, um, tail feathers, sort of like a quetzal that South American bird with the extraordinarily narrowly long plumes.

Speaker 1: 05:13 Um, these long tail feathers, uh, may or may not change as the animal grows, but they are really distinct and um, no other dinosaur that we know of has these in isolation. Does this discovery give you a window into what earth was like 120 million years ago? So this was a time that was actually a little bit cool for the Cretaceous. Cretaceous is the last of the periods of the time of dinosaurs lasted for many millions of years. And in that time you had periods of climate change where it got warmer or cooler, but as a whole it was much warmer than today. However, this time period where we are discovering all of these birds and dinosaurs with feathers and these other flying animals pterosaurs with fluff on them, a little mammals that also have for seems to be a time that was cooler, at least in this part of Asia.

Speaker 1: 05:57 Then the rest of this long period at the end of the time of dinosaurs. So we think that there might be some connection between the growth of these external features that may be helped the animals move around or keep warm, um, and this temperature change. But that link is not clear yet. And so those are just the questions that are raised by continuing to find more and more of these animals. We're also really interested in the ecosystem that we're discovering. And this is one of the most diverse ecosystems we've ever discovered. And there seemed to be two reasons for that. One is that the Lake bed is so good at preserving these fossils, so we're just finding a lot more of what was actually there. And the second reason might be that this seems to be a very rich environment. And so there may have been a lot of things that we're doing, just slightly different ways of making the living to fit into, um, this tightly packed ecosystem.

Speaker 2: 06:46 Now, where is the fossil that you worked on? Where is that now?

Speaker 1: 06:50 So even though I'm at the Nat, uh, the San Diego natural history museum, um, and I worked on this fossil while I was a student at Montana state and then later, uh, at Berkeley, I, uh, obviously kept take this fossil away from the Chinese and I wouldn't want to. So it's, um, currently held at the Dali natural history museum in China.

Speaker 2: 07:08 As I mentioned early, the rate of dinosaur discoveries has apparently been increasing over the last five years. Have we been learning a lot more about dinosaurs because of these discoveries?

Speaker 1: 07:18 So I think there's this perception that the era of dinosaur discoveries was in the 18 hundreds. I think there's a lot of, uh, things that go into that. Um, but this image of the rugged 18th century man in a crazy getup with a big pic, it's not entirely wrong, but it's, it's definitely not the modern image of paleontology. This is a golden age for paleontologists and the increase in the varying types of people that are getting involved in paleontology, the coworkers that we have internationally. Um, as well as some new methods have made this one of the best times to work on dinosaurs in all of our experience. More dinosaurs were named in the last five years than any other five period, five year period in history. And though there were no, none other of these little Raptor dinosaurs like the one that we described, uh, described in the last year. Um, there were in the year before that and the year before that. And so, um, this is really a time when, when dinosaur exploration rather than decreasing is actually blossoming.

Speaker 2: 08:19 I've been speaking with paleontologist, Dr. Ashley post with the San Diego natural history museum. You can see a report on this new dinosaur discovery and look at that fossil tonight at five on KPBS television's evening edition. Ashley, thanks so much.

Speaker 1: 08:34 Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.