The dinosaur that went to space: the state fossil of New Mexico

Who knew that New Mexico has one of the world’s most famous dinosaur species? I sure didn’t until our recent visit to Ghost Ranch, located about an hour north of Santa Fe (see my last post about Georgia O’Keefe and her life in that region: https://landscapes-revealed.net/the-rocks-of-georgia-okeefe/). It turns out that a Ghost Ranch quarry has yielded hundreds of Coelophysis dinosaur skeletons. This dinosaur was first discovered near Abiquiú in 1881, but in 1949 a field team from the American Museum of Natural History in New York went to Ghost Ranch and found such a vast number of skeletons that Coelophysis was eventually selected as New Mexico’s state fossil in 1981.

Here is a well-preserved skeleton of the state fossil, named Coelophysis, meaning “hollow form”. This dinosaur had hollow limb bones that gave it a light-weight body and helped it to be a swift, agile hunter. My photo is of a replica in the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology at Ghost Ranch. The original skeleton is in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Inside the dinosaur’s rib cage are bones of its last meal’s remains—a small early relative of crocodiles.

What’s so special about this dinosaur species?

The Coelophysis dinosaur bones are in the Late Triassic Chinle Formation (see my last post for information about the three periods of the Mesozoic Era (https://landscapes-revealed.net/the-rocks-of-georgia-okeefe/). The Late Triassic Period is known as the beginning of the “Age of Dinosaurs”, and Coelophysis (lived from ~225–190 million years ago) is among the earliest discovered meat-eating dinosaurs. Ghost Ranch claims to have excavated more skeletons of Triassic dinosaurs than anywhere else in the world.

[In 2017, we traveled to Northern Argentina, another place where some of the earliest dinosaur fossils have been found. To learn more about those sites, go to https://landscapes-revealed.net/argentina-a-paradise-for-fossils-of-dinosaurs-and-proto-mammals/.]

Above is a life-size model of Coelophysis. Dinosaurs had not yet reached the great size and ferocity they achieved later in the Mesozoic Era. [You may remember that all of the dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Mesozoic Era when an asteroid impact extinguished a large percentage of life forms on Earth.] Coelophysis was a small therapod that was about 2 meters (6.5 feet) long and weighed about 27 kg (60 pounds). It relied on speed and agility to capture a large variety of insects and small reptiles. I took this photo in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque.
This small valley is the quarry where Coelophysis skeletons were excavated. It is located at the western end of the Kitchen Mesa trail not far from the Ghost Ranch buildings (roofs that are visible beyond the quarry site). This site contained hundreds of skeletons that were piled up together.

Why were these dinosaurs fossilized?

Because of factors such as oxidation and predators, only a small fraction of living organisms become part of the fossil record. So how did hundreds of Coelophysis dinosaurs get preserved? The sediments of the Chinle Formation are mud, sand and gravel deposited in a river system. Because the climate at that time and location was dry, water and food were probably scarce. Experts contend that the dinosaurs had probably gone to a place where there was water, but not enough for large groups. The relative scarcity of water and food may have caused them to die of thirst or starvation. Those corpses would have attracted more meat-eating dinosaurs. Because the skeletons were piled up together, it’s thought that a flash flood gathered the corpses together. Then, more flooding washed mud over the corpses, burying them so that they could be preserved as fossils. It’s a sad tale, but helpful to paleontologists who study the evolution of life on Earth.

During the Cenozoic Era (<66 million years ago), the Colorado Plateau was uplifted, causing rivers to cut down into the landscape and overlying rocks to be eroded away. These processes eventually brought the Triassic rocks to the surface and the fossil-bearing sedimentary layers to our view.

Here is another view, looking northeastward, of the Ghost Ranch Coelophysis Quarry.

But how did this dinosaur go to space?

Dinosaurs and space are both popular aspects of science. So why not combine these two elements into an effective science outreach tool! The first dinosaur to venture into space was the 76-million-year-old hadrosaur Maiasaura, which is called the “good mother lizard” because it cared for its young in large nesting colonies. Bits of bone and eggshell found at a nesting site were carried by an astronaut to SpaceLab2 in 1985. As a result of its fame, Maiasaura was in 1985 made Montana’s state dinosaur.

Coelophysis was the second dinosaur to be transported to space. Already famed as the state fossil of New Mexico, NASA’s Endeavor Space Shuttle borrowed a skull from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History—quarried at Ghost Ranch, of course—and carried it to the Mir space station. It left Earth on 22 January 1989 and returned shortly thereafter on 31 January.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science is also well worth a visit if you find yourself in Albuquerque. The museum has an excellent fossil collection that chronicles the geologic history represented in New Mexico. One of their most interesting fossils is the “Bisti Beast”, shorthand for its full name—Bistahieversor sealeyi—that combines Greek and Navajo words and means “Sealey’s Destroyer of the Badlands”. Sealeyi is to honor Paul Sealey, who found the fossil in the Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness Area in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico. The paleontological excavation in 1998 was the first allowed in a Federal Wilderness area. Because it was far from roads, scientists had to carefully encase all parts in plaster and airlift the parts by helicopter to a waiting truck. The specimens continue to be analyzed in the museum’s fossil preparation lab.

The Bisti Beast is a tyrannosaur that lived about 75 million years ago, 2 million years before its larger and more notorious relative, Tyrannosaurus rex. By this time, dinosaurs were the top predators and kings of the planet. In contrast to its diminutive ancestor Coelophysis, the Besti Beast was about 9 meters (30 feet) long and weighed about 3 tons!

Resources

Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology at Ghost Ranch: https://www.ghostranch.org/activities/the-ruth-hall-museum-of-paleontology/. The museum was named after Ruth Hall, an amateur paleontologist and another intrepid 20th century woman in the northern New Mexico region.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science: https://www.nmnaturalhistory.org/.

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2 Comments

  1. Mark on June 19, 2022 at 6:06 am

    Absolutely fascinating! And combined with the art and history of Ghost Ranch. That place is on my list. You guys have such interesting trips!

    • Landscapes Revealed on June 19, 2022 at 12:18 pm

      Thanks Mark! We were in New Mexico thanks to friends getting married in Santa Fe. We sure enjoyed the region.

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