Tag Archives: New Mexico

Fossil Friday: 300 million-year-old “Godzilla Shark” from New Mexico finally gets an official name

A press release from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) on Thursday announces, at long last, the scientific name of this impressive shark.

The fossil and a 3D reconstruction of the animal’s skeleton. Image credits Jesse Pruitt / New Mexico Museum Of Natural History & Science.

First discovered eight years ago, the species has so far been known by an unofficial (if cool) name: the “Godzilla Shark”. But researchers are now confident enough in their observations to place the animal on the tree of life, and with that, give it its official scientific name. The animal lived around 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous period.

Big shark

The shark, uncovered in the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico, has been named Dracopristis hoffmanorum. It’s part of an ancient lineage that split off from the main family, but one which did not stand the test of time. It’s unofficial names include “Godzilla Shark” and “Hoffman’s Dragon Shark” in recognition of its big jaws, large spine, and in honor of the Hoffman family who own the land where the fossil was found.

“Dracopristis and other ctenacanth sharks represent a unique evolutionary branch of the sharks that split off from the modern sharks and rays approximately 390 million years ago, but that went extinct by the end of the Paleozoic Era, about 252 million years ago,” the museum explained in the release.

Judging from the fossils, the animal could grow to around 6.7 feet in length. It had 12 rows of teeth growing out from powerful jaws, and two large fin spines on its back that could reach an estimated 2.5 feet in length. These could have played a role as a defensive measure against predators, the team explains. The animal was most likely an ambush predator, lurking in shallow lagoons and estuaries where it would surprise prey like crustaceans, fish, and anything else it could find, with a tooth-lined maw.

Dracopristis was discovered by accident, when John-Paul Hodnett, a paleontologist at the Maryland National Capital Parks was poking through some limestone fragments with his knife in the Manzano Mountains to sift through them. “At first, I thought what was flipped over was the cross-section of a limb bone, which was exciting as no large tetrapod had been found at that site before,” Hodnett explains.

Still, a day later, Hodnett and his team were convinced that the discovery was in fact a new species of fish, most likely from the genus Ctenacanthus, which is today extinct. It eventually turned out to be the most complete ctenacanth ever discovered in the whole of North America.

The last seven years were spent studying the fossil, which included preparation and digital scanning at the NMMNHS’s labs. This allowed the team to describe the new fossil and identify its place in the tree of life.

The paper “Ctenacanthiform Sharks From The Late Pennsylvanian (Missourian) Tinajas Member Of The Atrasado Formation, Central New Mexico” has been published in the Bulletin of the NMMNHS

Coronavirus in New Mexico — live updates, cases, and news

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New species of feathery raptor found in New Mexico

A newly-discovered dinosaur species from New Mexico is one of the last raptors to have walked the Earth, researchers report — and they were feathered.

The species, christened Dineobellator notohesperus, lived 67 million years ago in today’s New Mexico, and its discovery helps us better understand life in the region during the last days of the dinosaurs.

Artist’s reconstruction of Dineobellator notohesperus.
Image credits: Sergey Krasovskiy.

The fossils were found in 2008 by Robert Sullivan of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, in Cretaceous-aged rocks from the San Juan Basin, New Mexico. Recovery of this initial specimen took four (archeological) field seasons. The name they gave the species means “Navajo warrior from the Southwest,” in honor of the people who today live in the region.

American raptor

Dineobellator is a relative of the Asian (and well-known) species Velociraptor, both part of the dromaeosaurid group — the infamous ‘raptors’. It was, however, much smaller than the raptors you’d see in movies, only being about 3.5 feet (about 1 meter) wide at the hip and 6 to 7 feet (about 2 meters) long.

The team wasn’t able to recover a complete skeleton, but even so, the finding is very exciting. Raptor fossils tend to be pretty rare, as the animals were relatively small and lightly-built predators, and their remains are often destroyed before or during fossilization. “While dromaeosaurids are better known from places like the northern United States, Canada, and Asia, little is known of the group farther south in North America,” says Steven Jasinski, lead author of the study.

Bones from the animal’s forearms show quill nobs, the team explains, which are small surface bumps where feathers would attach to ligaments, making it overwhelmingly likely that Dineobellator sported feathers similar to the Velociraptors. Other features of its skeleton, such as enlarged areas where the claws would attach, suggest that the species would try to latch onto its prey — likely with its smaller forelimbs being used for smaller animals such as birds and lizards, and the feet for larger species such as dinosaur.

The tail also shows some interesting characteristics, the team notes. Most raptors have quite stiff, straight tails, but Dineobellator’s was rather flexible at its base. The authors believe the species used its tail as a rudder of sorts to help preserve balance.

“Think of what happens with a cat’s tail as it is running,” says Jasinski. “While the tail itself remains straight, it is also whipping around constantly as the animal is changing direction. A stiff tail that is highly mobile at its base allows for increased agility and changes in direction, and potentially aided Dineobellator in pursuing prey, especially in more open habitats.”

The team says this find supports the theory that all raptors had feathers, and offers us insight into their hunting behavior.

“It was with a lot of searching and a bit of luck that this dinosaur was found weathering out of a small hillside,” he adds. “We do so much hiking and it is easy to overlook something or simply walk on the wrong side of a hill and miss something. We hope that the more we search, the better chance we have of finding more of Dineobellator or the other dinosaurs it lived alongside.”

The paper “New Dromaeosaurid Dinosaur (Theropoda, Dromaeosauridae) from New Mexico and Biodiversity of Dromaeosaurids at the end of the Cretaceous” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.