Axel Hungerbuehler, Dinosaur Museum curator, contrasts the rare hip bone with a museum exhibit of an early dinosaur, the Coelophysis.
Recent studies of a fossil collected last June in Quay County, indicate that it's a hip bone of Triassic dinosaur that is not commonly found in this area of the southwest , said Axel Hungerbuehler, Mesalands Community College's Dinosaur Museum curator.
"Very rare to find bones of a early dinosaurs in fact if you gathered all the Triassic fossil bones found in eastern New Mexico they would fit in a shoe box," Hungerbuehler, said.
The fossil was found by students participating in Mesalands Community College's Paleontology Field Discovery class.
What was found and excavated was an ilium, the topmost element of the three bones that make up the hip bone of an unidentified creature that lived in Triassic period, or approximately 200 million years ago, in the Tucumcari area.
"No bone looks the same and that is true in every species of animal," Hungerbuehler said. "This could be a bone from a Coelophysis, a early dinosaur that has been recorded living in the upper Triassic period. It could also be from a undiscovered proto-dinosaur but until the fossil is completely restored and compared to other samples it is too early to say that."
The fossil was discovered in rocks of the uppermost Triassic in Quay County, Hungerbuehler said.
Typically, the site of fossil finds, especially dinosaur bones, are not revealed because of agreements with landowners and the need to protect and preserve the fossils from pilferage.
"It was the last day of the field class when we found the hip bone," Hungerbuehler said. "It was uncovered by accident when students were removing a rock from around another fossil we were preparing to bring back to the lab."
Hungerbuehler said the bone was left in the ground that day but he asked one of the students to stay with him for one more day to help remove the fossil.
"The fossil was exposed and I knew that if we left it there it would be destroyed," Hungerbuehler said. The next day, "The bone was encased in plaster and brought back to the lab. We had no idea, at the time, what we had."
Enrolled in the class were three Tucumcari High School volunteers, Donny Price, Steven Smith, and Carmen Runyan (who were with us because of a special scholarship),. Also in the class were Ronald Heck and Jon Douthitt of Texas, Steaven Hamilton, who has some volunteer experience with The Sam Noble Museum in Oklahoma City, and Leah Kaplan, a high school science teacher from New York City. And another student, Reginal Tempelmayer of Norman, Okla., who actually found the bone.
The fossil remained untouched in the lab at the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum for several months and no special attention was given to the sample until some interesting things began to appear as the specimen was cleaned in December, Hungerbuehler said.
“On the bottom rim of the bone, there is a deep embayment flanked by two prongs – this is the hip socket where the thigh bone connects,” Hungerbuehler said. “There is only one reptile group in the Triassic with a hole in the hip sockets. This is a real dinosaur ilium or, alternatively, a ‘proto-dinosaur,’ an ancestral dinosaur-like form that does not show yet all the features of true dinosaurs.”
Contrary to popular opinion, Hungerbuehler said, dinosaurs are actually very rare in the Upper Triassic period. In fact, all the dinosaur fossils from the southwestern Triassic period put together would probably fit in one standard museum cabinet drawer.
There are, however, hundreds of specimens of Coelophysis, which is New Mexico’s state fossil and the best known early dinosaur. It has typically been found at the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, in the northwestern area of the state.
The Coelophysis is a small theropod dinosaur, and is one of the earliest known dinosaurs. It was a small, early, meat-eating dinosaur that scientists estimate weighed up to 90 pounds and was 9-feet long and 3 feet high from its hip.
"When we compare this ilium with the ilium of an average-sized Coelophysis, ours is not only significantly larger, but also the shape is quite different," Hungerbuehler said.
The presence of what could be a significant discovery lying in the paleontology laboratory at Mesalands has created no small amount of excitement among students and staff. But discoveries have been made before by students in this small facility in Tucumcari. Previously, a student discovered a tooth embedded in a fossilized bone, giving evidence of the violent life led by some creatures living centuries ago.