Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Pa. State Museum volunteer chipped away until he found a new dinosaur

HARRISBURG - For 11 years, Kevin Dermody had volunteered his time in the State Museum of Pennsylvania, laboring over a hulking chunk of mudstone in the exhibit area, chipping away with tiny tools as visitors watched him work.

HARRISBURG - For 11 years, Kevin Dermody had volunteered his time in the State Museum of Pennsylvania, laboring over a hulking chunk of mudstone in the exhibit area, chipping away with tiny tools as visitors watched him work.

Over time, he exposed a jagged panorama of fragile bones hundreds of millions of years old, excavated from a quarry in New Mexico rich in remnants of prehistoric life.

To Dermody and others who devote themselves to solving the mysteries of the ancients, the fossils were routine - all from well-documented species of dinosaurs.

All along, it turns out, the find of a lifetime was there in the mudstone, right under Dermody's nose.

While chipping away one day in 2004, he exposed the skull and neck of a curious creature with razor-sharp protruding teeth and a snubby snout.

He went to his boss, Bob Sullivan.

"The teeth, the eye sockets, the snout were different than the dinosaur remains excavated from that site," said Sullivan, senior curator of paleontology at the State Museum. "We had something unique."

This much Sullivan knew: Teeth that sharp belonged to a meat-eater. It traveled on two legs and lived about 200 million years ago.

Next, Sullivan brought in the heavyweights - David Berman, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and Hans-Dieter Sues of the Smithsonian Institution, a specialist in dinosaurs of the Triassic era - who carefully removed the chunk containing the remains for further study.

"Ninety-five percent of the fossils [found] are known, but every so often you get something odd," said Sues, who was the first to formally identify the skeleton as the remains of a new dinosaur. "It was unlike anything I had seen."

The immense front teeth, with blades serrated like knives, identified it as a "new predatory kind of dinosaur," Sues said

Unlike in the movies, one expert's opinion did not a dinosaur make. Plenty more hands-on work to fully uncover the skeleton fragment followed, which set in motion the long academic vetting process, ending only last month with the publication of a scholarly article in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

That was cause for celebration in the State Museum in Harrisburg - which in recent years, thanks to serial budget cuts and layoffs, hadn't had much to celebrate.

Sues, who cowrote the article, said the discovery helped fill the evolutionary gap between dinosaurs that lived in South America about 230 million years ago and those that came later, such as the fabled Tyrannosaurus rex.

"It was the link between the early and the late meat-eating dinosaurs," said Sues, who got naming rights. He dubbed the creature Daemonosaurus chauliodus - "evil-spirit lizard" with "buck teeth."

The undiscovered Daemonosaurus was brought to Pennsylvania almost two decades ago through a random act of inter-museum cooperation.

The Carnegie Museum lent massive blocks of mudstone to museums across the country in 1993. One of the recipients was the State Museum in Harrisburg.

The blocks - eight feet wide and eight feet long, as if a giant had baked brownies - were the bounty from a major excavation at the world-renowned Ghost Ranch quarry in New Mexico. That treasure trove of fossils was discovered by a Philadelphia paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, in the 1880s.

The State Museum's slice was so large and so heavy (several tons) that the National Guard was called in to transport it the 200 miles from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.

The State Museum proceeded to build a new Dino Lab around the mudstone block - and installed Dermody to begin the slow, delicate process of chipping.

He gradually brought the exhibit to life as he whittled away at the stone behind a glass window - sometimes arranging himself on a cushion to reach the inside of the block.

Dermody smiles when he thinks about that day in 2004.

"It was a dream come true for any paleontologist," he said. He has since finished work on the remaining section of the block, and has moved on to studying other fossil remains.

But the story of the world's newest dinosaur is far from over.

The remains are being returned to the Carnegie Museum. Sullivan said he feared visitors would get to see only a picture of the dinosaur in the State Museum, because the bones were too fragile to make a cast replica for display.

But Sues was more optimistic, saying Thursday that the Smithsonian's conservators believe the bones can withstand the casting process after all.

Meanwhile, the search continues for the rest of the paleontological puzzle.

Sues said other bits of the skeleton may be buried in the adjoining sections of mudstone that were lent to other museums. That mudstone, he said, is where the creature he identified perished - along with countless other ancients - in some catastrophic event, likely a flash flood.

He has sent out an all-points bulletin to about 20 museums to be on the lookout for additional skeletal remains of Daemonosaurus.

Sues said he was confident that researchers one day would find the pieces and paint a full picture of the bucktoothed demon lizard that once roamed the earth.