Rare dinosaur hip bone found in Quay County

By Thomas Garcia: Freedom New Mexico

TUCUMCARI — Studies of a fossil collected last June in Quay County indicate that it’s a hip bone of an unidentified Triassic period creature that walked what is now New Mexico some 200 million years ago.

Students in participating in a Mesalands Community College geology class field trip found and excavated an ilium, the topmost element of the three hip bones.

“It’s very rare to find bones of early dinosaurs. In fact, if you gathered all the Triassic fossil bones found in eastern New Mexico, they would fit in a shoe box,” according to Axel Hungerbuehler, Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum curator and instructor of the paleontology field discovery class.

The college announced the discovery earlier this month.

“No bone looks the same and that is true in every species of animal,” Hungerbuehler said. “This could be a bone from a coelophysis, an early dinosaur that has been recorded living in the upper Triassic period. It could also be from a undiscovered proto-dinosaur, but until the fossil is completely restored and compared to other samples it is too early to say that.”

The coelophysis, one of the earliest known dinosaurs, is a small theropod. It was an early, meat-eating dinosaur that scientists estimate weighed up to 90 pounds and was 9-feet long and 3-feet high from its hip.

“When we compare this ilium with the ilium of an average-sized coelophysis, ours is not only significantly larger, but also the shape is quite different,” Hungerbuehler said.

Typically, the sites of fossil finds, especially dinosaur bones, are not revealed because of agreements with landowners and the need to protect and preserve the fossils from pilferage.

“It was the last day of the field class when we found the hip bone,” Hungerbuehler said. “It was uncovered by accident when students were removing a rock from around another fossil we were preparing to bring back to the lab.”

Hungerbuehler said the bone was left in the ground that day, but he asked one of the students to stay with him for one more day to help remove the fossil.

“The fossil was exposed, and I knew that if we left it there, it would be destroyed,” Hungerbuehler said. The next day, “The bone was encased in plaster and brought back to the lab. We had no idea, at the time, what we had.”

The fossil remained untouched in the lab at the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum for several months, and no special attention was given to the sample until some interesting things began to appear as the specimen was cleaned in December, Hungerbuehler said.

“On the bottom rim of the bone, there is a deep embayment flanked by two prongs — this is the hip socket where the thigh bone connects,” Hungerbuehler said. “There is only one reptile group in the Triassic with a hole in the hip sockets. This is a real dinosaur ilium or, alternatively, a ‘proto-dinosaur,’ an ancestral dinosaur-like form that does not show yet all the features of true dinosaurs.

“Pending further study, this suggests that it belongs to an unknown form from the dawn of the dinosaurs.”

Hungerbuehler said dinosaurs are rare in the Upper Triassic period. In fact, all the dinosaur fossils from the southwestern Triassic period put together would probably fit in one standard museum cabinet drawer, he said.

There are, however, hundreds of specimens of coelophysis, which is New Mexico’s best known early dinosaur. It has typically been found at the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, in the northwestern area of the state.

Mesalands students have made discoveries before, including a tooth embedded in a fossilized bone, giving evidence of the violent life led by some creatures living centuries ago.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.