If you want to find a new Dinosaur Species- try looking in a Museum’s Vaults

The romantic notion of an earnest young palaeontologist exploring the base of a cliff away from the rest of the dig team and uncovering their very own brand new genus of dinosaur is a bit fanciful, but these occasions do occur.  However, sometimes amazing discoveries can be made by simply re-examining earlier finds in museum collections.

This is precisely what happened to Mike Taylor, a PhD student from the University of Portsmouth who has discovered a brand new type of sauropod (long-necked dinosaur) whilst studying at the Natural History museum – London.

For Mike, who has been studying the vertebrae of sauropods for 5 years as soon as he saw the strange partially complete fossil bone, he knew it was very different from fossil vertebrae he had seen before.  The isolated bone represents a posterior part of the dorsal vertebrae section of an elephant-sized sauropod.  The fossil was unearthed in the early 1890s in Ecclesbourne Glen, near Hastings in the county of Kent.  Unfortunately since palaeontology was very much in its infancy and the importance of accurate mapping of find locations was not well understood, no detailed records were kept of the actual site.

The fossil was acquired by the Natural History museum and briefly reviewed by the English palaeontologist Richard Lydekker in 1893, but after this it was simply stored in the vaults – that is until a very observant PhD student came along and noted its significance.

Mike Taylor with his New Discovery

Picture credit: Wired Science

This new dinosaur has been named Xenoposeidon proneneukus, which means “alien sauropod – forward sloping” in homage to another sauropod called Sauroposeidon discovered in Western North America and because the upper portion of this single bone slopes forward.  It has been estimated that this animal lived during the early Cretaceous approximately 130 million years ago and from the shape and structure of this single dorsal vertebra it appears to represent a totally new family of Sauropoda.

Mike’s work is to published in the academic journal “Palaeontology” and here’s hoping that his diligence and hard work leads to more exciting discoveries in the museum’s collection.

Having been privileged to visit behind the scenes at a number of museums, the fact that new species of dinosaur (and even new families) can be found does not really surprise us.  For example, the Natural History museum has over 70 million specimens in its collection, the vast majority in storage.  Many of the fossils unearthed in the past have been misidentified and mis-labelled so there may be other fascinating finds awaiting discovery.

Once whilst at the Royal Tyrrell museum in Alberta, Canada we calculated that in their fossil depository, the tonnes and tonnes of burlap covered fossil bearing rock would take over 100 years to prepare and describe properly.  One hundred years, if every single palaeontologist and team worker stopped what they were doing and then spent 8 hours a day working on the museum’s back catalogue.

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