SUU Professor Unearths New Dino DiscoverySeptember 23, 2009
Geologists expect a certain level of exposure to the elements as they track the earth’s ongoing transformation. Theirs is certainly not a desk job.
But for one Southern Utah University professor and taphonomist – someone who is both an expert in geology and archaeology – a dirt storm or downpour seems relatively mild when you consider he and his team are accompanied by armed hunters as they chip away at a Chitake River cliff face in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park in search of dinosaur bones.
Their charge: Uncover the remains of a long-dead carnivorous creature, now reduced to bone fragments and theories.
The catch: These scientists survey and chisel amidst a watering hole for wildlife that includes free-roaming lions, elephants and other animals most Americans will never see beyond the walls of their local zoo.
Indeed, Professor Roberts is a long way from fluorescent lighting and climate controlled offices.
Not to worry. With one of the most spectacular discoveries in the history of paleontology, Roberts is fairly confident the risk of a wild animal attack was well worth the payoff; his methodical treasure hunting this past summer uncovered a dinosaur skull that has never before been found, that of the therapod Syntarsus rhodesiensis.
In essence, Roberts has discovered one of archaeology’s holy grails.
According to Roberts, the Syntarsus rhodesiensis, also known as the Megapnosaurus, was first discovered in 1969 in central Zimbabwe. And though the remains of several such creatures have been uncovered since then, no one has ever been able to find an intact skull of this big lizard that grew up to ten feet tall. So after a colleague from Zimbabwe pointed Roberts toward the East African rift basin as a possible site for Syntarsus remains, Roberts pieced together funding from several sources, including SUU’s faculty development fund, and quickly departed last summer on a pilot trip to investigate the area’s potential.
Just months –and one skull – later, Roberts has now secured funding from the National Geographic Society to continue his work over the next few summers in the Zambezi Valley, an apparent hot bed for the Syntarsus from the late Triassic and early Jurassic eras.
In between these intercontinental expeditions, Roberts continues to share his quickly-expanding insights with Southern Utah University’s geology students. Just one month in to the new school year, Professor Roberts may be one of the few people on campus who is already making concrete plans for his next summer vacation. Among those plans, is the potential for an SUU student to accompany Roberts and his team of archaeologists, geologists and taphonomists from across the nation as they continue work in Mana Pools National Park next summer.
And for that one lucky student, this could truly be a life-changing opportunity. In addition to having housed the first articulated Syntarsus skull, the Chitake River is essentially a bone bed, with a high concentration of dinosaur remains. Roberts explains, “Generally, when you find dinosaur bones, you find portions of one or two dinosaurs. This is one of those rare times when you find mass accumulations of dinosaurs. Really, this is one of the most spectacular dinosaur finds anywhere and from any time.”
He continues, “Initially, I went to Mana Pools just to survey the area, to see what I could find. Really, most paleontologists don’t get this kind of opportunity in a lifetime.”
With his star on the rise, Roberts is doing all he can to make the most of this opportunity. One thing is certain: his is a work that will echo through the ages.