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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.

Just How Much Land Does the Federal Government Own — and Why?

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC.

Surprising Science

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC. Until you look at the title to the land. The federal government owns large tracts of the western states: from a low of 29.9% in Montana, already more than the national average, up to a whopping 84.5% in Nevada.

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Can VR help us understand layers of oppression?

Researchers are using technology to make visual the complex concepts of racism, as well as its political and social consequences.

Future of Learning
  • Often thought of first as gaming tech, virtual reality has been increasingly used in research as a tool for mimicking real-life scenarios and experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Focusing on issues of oppression and the ripple affect it has throughout America's political, educational, and social systems, Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University School of Social Work and her team developed a VR experience that gives users the opportunity to "walk a mile" in the shoes of a black man as he faces racism at three stages in his life: as a child, during adolescence, and as an adult.
  • Cogburn says that the goal is to show how these "interwoven oppressions" continue to shape the world beyond our individual experiences. "I think the most important and powerful human superpower is critical consciousness," she says. "And that is the ability to think, be aware and think critically about the world and people around you...it's not so much about the interpersonal 'Do I feel bad, do I like you?'—it's more 'Do I see the world as it is? Am I thinking critically about it and engaging it?'"
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Russia claims world's first COVID-19 vaccine but skepticism abounds

President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced coronavirus vaccine at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Credit: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Coronavirus
  • Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that a COVID-19 vaccine has been approved in Russia.
  • Scientists around the world are worried that the vaccine is unsafe and that Russia fast-tracked the vaccine without performing the necessary phase 3 trials.
  • To date, Russia has had nearly 900,000 registered cases of coronavirus.
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