Researchers made quite a find this week in Utah: a new species of raptor dinosaur. The ancient creature, a meat-eater, was small and fast, with talon-like toes.
"These animals were incredibly fast, incredibly intelligent and some of them wielded very significant claws and sharp teeth," Dr. Lindsay Zanno of the New University of Wisconsin tells NPR's Scott Simon. Zanno led the dig team that made the discovery.
Zanno named the species Talos Sampsoni after her friend and colleague, Dr. Scott Sampson, also known as "Dr. Scott" on the television series, Dinosaur Train. Talos Sampsoni was feathered and about 5-feet long and about 2-and-a-half feet at the hips, Zanno says. "Definitely an overgrown vicious Labrador retriever-sized animal," she says.
Michael Knell, a graduate student at Montana State University, actually made the discovery. Knell had been hunting the Badlands in Southern Utah for fossilized turtles. "He turned the corner and found one of the most amazing raptor-dinosaur specimens we have from the late Cretaceous in North America," Zanno says.
The bones were intact and, in the ground, looked the way they would have in life — a discovery, she says, that is fairly rare in North America.
"Most dinosaur specimens that we have have been laying out on the surface for a long time and the bones have become scattered," Zanno says.
The discovery is significant not because it reveals anything new about the biology of these animals, Zanno says, but rather because it's a piece of the puzzle researchers had speculated about but never confirmed. Zanno says that footprint evidence suggested that the specialized talon on the foot of the raptor dinosaur wasn't used for walking and was regularly put in harm's way. But this kind of evidence is ambiguous.
"Finding Talos was something we were all waiting for and was confirmation we'd been speculating about for a long time," she says.
The dinosaur will soon go on display at the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City.
As for Knell? "He's still plugging away at his degree and hopefully getting some good fanfare out of his important discovery," Zanno says.
SCOTT SIMON, Host:
There was quite a find this week: a new species of raptor dinosaur was discovered in Utah. The ancient creature was small and fast with talon-like toes, and he was a meat eater. Careful there, Brontosaurus.
Dr. Lindsay Zanno led the dig team that found the fossil. She joins us from the studios of WFMT in Chicago.
Thanks so much for being with us.
LINDSAY ZANNO: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: So, the very name rapture terrifies people. Was this a terrifying raptor?
ZANNO: I think, indeed, that name is well put. These animals were incredibly fast, incredibly intelligent and some of them wielded very significant claws and sharp teeth. So it's a good notion.
SIMON: How big was this raptor?
ZANNO: This is not a terribly huge animal. I mean contrary to something like the velociraptors that we saw in "Jurassic Park," this animal was only maybe five feet long about two-and-a-half feet at the hips.
SIMON: Well, big enough to do some damage though, right?
ZANNO: Definitely - definitely an overgrown, vicious Labrador retriever-sized animal.
SIMON: And I've read it had feathers?
ZANNO: Yes, we know that this group of dinosaurs would have been feathered. In fact, this particular group of dinosaurs was very, very closely related to modern birds, which are in fact living dinosaurs that made it through that mass extinction event 65 million years ago, and are still living along side of us today.
SIMON: So does this raptor have a short, nasty, brutish life or is it hard to say?
ZANNO: Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment. I mean one of the interesting things about discovery is we had known for a long time that the specialized talon, on the foot of raptor dinosaurs, wasn't used for walking. And so it was kind of disturbing that if the hypothesis was that these animals were putting this toe regularly in harms way, it was kind of disturbing that we'd never found any fossils showing any injury to this particular part of their body.
So I think that finding Talos was something that we were all waiting for. And it was a confirmation of something that we'd been speculating about for a long time.
SIMON: Does he have a name, like Suzy...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: ...there was one there in Chicago?
ZANNO: Well, no. But in a very real way, given that I named the species name after a good friend and colleague of mine, Scott Sampson, who is the...
SIMON: My God, is the raptor called Scott?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ZANNO: It's called Talos sampsoni.
ZANNO: And I know Scott, of course, is his famous for being Dr. Scott of the PBS "Dinosaur Train" kids' television show.
SIMON: Yes, of course. I know that one. Oh, my, word. So never considered naming the raptor Scott, uh?
ZANNO: No, we generally stick to the last names on those.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: Dr. Lindsay Zanno, paleontologists joining us from WFMT in Chicago. Thanks so much.
ZANNO: Thank you.
SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.