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article imageCliff-side brimming with late Triassic fossils discovered

By Megan Hamilton     Jan 14, 2016 in Science
Jensen - A cliff-side in Utah has offered paleontologists a precious glimpse into the age of the earliest dinosaurs, and the scientists have unearthed some amazing fossils.
The fossils include a pterosaur that was likely the largest flying reptile of its time.
The 210-million-year-old fossils were discovered in 2009, in a place that's definitely appropriate fossil territory — Dinosaur National Monument, near the town of Jensen in northeastern Utah, The Associated Press reports.
This area was a desert back then, just as it is now.
The pterosaur feasted on small crocodile-like reptiles and had a powerful skull studded with sharp teeth.
"If you saw one of these things coming at you with its jaws open, it would freak you out of your mind," said Brooks Britt, a Brigham Young University paleontologist. He presented preliminary findings to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology earlier this week at a conference in Dallas.
Some of the creatures the researchers discovered were highly unusual, Foundily reports. The trove included a drepanosaur, a reptile with a bird-like head, hands that had an immense claw on each index finger, and weirdly, a claw on the tip of its' tail. Stranger still, the critter's tail was prehensile, meaning it could hang from a tree like a monkey. Several small crocodile-like creatures that had armored backs, known as sphenosuchians were also found, as were two types of carnivorous dinosaurs, including one that was a relative of coelophysis, of "Walking with Dinosaurs" fame.
"Probably almost everything we're finding [at the site] is previously unknown to science," said Dan Chure, who is with Dinosaur National Monument. He is also one of the site's co-discoverers.
The site is, in fact, like a "paleontological candy shop," he added.
University of Utah paleontologist Randall Irmis, who isn't involved with the project, said the fossils are "a spectacular find," USA Today reports. Sites that preserve several different animal species from the beginning of the age of dinosaurs are rare, he said.
And the fossils will help paleontologists piece together the period just before the mass extinction that helped the dinosaurs take over, he said. Specifically, the fossils illuminate what was living in the vast deserts that made up what is now the western United States, where Late Triassic fossils are rare.
When Chure and George Engelmann, of the University of Nebraska, Omaha decided to look for fossils in the ancient desert area that's known as "The Sandpit," they weren't expecting much. They hoped they could find one locality with perhaps one specimen in it, Engelmann said.
Instead, they found a Late Triassic time capsule that preserved not only large creatures, but small ones that often don't withstand the march of time in the fossil record, USA Today reports.
Britt noted that more than 11,000 fossils are contained within the site, in an area that's about the size of a large living room. At the time when these creatures lived, the site was a shallow lake that was likely lined with plants like ferns until a devastating drought destroyed the lake and the creatures who lived in and around it.
One of those creatures was the pterosaur that the researchers discovered. It should be noted that pterosaurs aren't dinosaurs, and, with it's large head and short wings, this one was well-adapted for zipping through tree branches hunting insects and other small creatures.
Because the pterosaur's skull was well-preserved, the researchers were able to view the inner workings. CT scans found air sacs preserved in the flying creature's lower jaw and braincase, which quite likely reduced the weight, making it easier for the creature to remain airborne, Britt noted.
The pterosaur hasn't been named as yet, and it was discovered by a college student in the midst of extracting fossils from a 300-pound block of sandstone from the site, The Associated Press notes.
Chure and Engelmann both realize they have stumbled on the find of their lives.
Britt has been collecting fossils for five decades, and for him, this place is "like Christmas every day."
In their jovial banter, the scientists have dubbed the site "The Saints and Sinners Quarry," because Britt is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while Engelmann and Chure are non-Mormons.
Something that the creatures living in their Triassic world likely didn't concern themselves with.
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