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Found in New Mexico: A tiny cousin of the T-Rex

A high-schooler's dig experience writes a new chapter in T-Rex history.

Found in New Mexico: A tiny cousin of the T-Rex
Image source: Artist's conception by Andrey Atuchin/Virginia Tech
  • The bones he found in New Mexico remained unidentified for 20 years.
  • Suskityrannus hazelae turns out to be a diminutive predecessor to the "king lizard."
  • The tiny terror is the ultimate "citizen scientist" victory.

A fascination with dinosaurs typically starts young. If an adult needs a question answered, a little kid is often the best, most enthusiastic, and up-to-date resource. Going on a paleontology dig is certainly one of the cooler, fascinating ways for a teen to spend a summer.

It's even better when he or she gets the thrill of gently prying from the dirt something that's been never seen before, which is what happened in 1998 when a 16-year-old high-school junior named Sterling Nesbitt found the remains of an unknown creature at Zuni Basin dinosaur site, which straddles the New Mexico-Arizona border. A year earlier geologist Robert Denton had found a partial, tiny skull of the same mysterious theropod, but Nesbitt's find was a more complete specimen.

This month, that creature has finally been scientifically identified: It's a tiny tyrannosaurid — dubbed Suskityrannus hazelae — and its remains offer an unprecedented view of what the mighty T-Rex was like before it became the killing behemoth kids know and love. Indeed, according to the researchers, the dino is phylogenetically the "intermediate between the oldest, smallest tyrannosauroids and the gigantic, last-surviving tyrannosaurids."

Suskityrannus hazelae

A partial Suskityrannus skull is dwarfed by just the jawbone of a T-Rex. Image source: Virginia Tech News

When Nesbitt originally found the bones, they were among the remains of other prehistoric fish, turtles, lizards, crocodylians, and mammals. Because of this, for a time, the assumption was that he'd found a dromaeosaur (think Velociraptor). "Essentially, we didn't know we had a cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex for many years," Nesbitt says, regarding the new taxonomy.

While a typical Tyrannosaus rex crushed the scales at about nine tons, the Suskityrannus weighed in at a mere 45 and 90 lbs. It stood just three fee tall at the hip, and was about nine feet long. The specimen found by Nesbitt is believed to date back to the Cretaceous, about 92 million years ago, and is thought to have been at least three years old. Like its larger cousin, it was also a meat-eater, though it likely supped on much smaller prey than did T-Rex.

Nesbitt tells Virginia Tech News, "Suskityrannus gives us a glimpse into the evolution of tyrannosaurs just before they take over the planet." He adds, "It also belongs to a dinosaurian fauna that just precedes the iconic dinosaurian faunas in the latest Cretaceous that include some of the most famous dinosaurs, such as the Triceratops, predators like Tyrannosaurus rex, and duckbill dinosaurs like Edmotosaurus."

"Suskityrannus has a much more slender skull and foot than its later and larger cousins, the Tyrannosaurus rex," Nesbitt reports. A partial claw has been found, and though it's unclear how many fingers Suskityrannus had, yes, they're just as oddly small as those of T-Rex.

The animal's new name comes from the Zuni word for coyote, "Suski" — the Zuni Tribal Council granted permission to appropriate the term. The "hazelae" is a tribute to Hazel Wolfe, who discovered the Zuni Basin site in 1996, and whose support has been crucial to the ongoing Zuni Basin Paleontology Project.

Life-changer

Nesbitt at the 1998 dig. Until 2006, his discovery was housed at the Arizona Museum of Natural History. Image source: Hazel Wolfe / Virginia Tech News

What became of discoverers? Denton is now an engineering geologist at GeoConcepts Engineering, and Nesbitt is now a geoscientist at Virginia Tech.

"My discovery of a partial skeleton of Suskityrannus put me onto a scientific journey that has framed my career. I am now an assistant professor that gets to teach about Earth history," says Nesbitt.

Nesbitt eventually took possession of his find and carted it around with him as he moved between academic jobs until it was finally identified.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

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Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

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Image source: Ernst Haeckel
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Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

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  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
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