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USU paleontologist helps discover ancient reptile

A Utah State University paleontologist is part of a team of scientists credited with discovering a new species of prehistoric marine reptile. UPR’s Matt Jensen reports.

“An exhibit at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Kansas kept a secret from its curators for decades. The flattened skull of an ancient reptile, lined with rows of sharp teeth was discovered in the Sunflower State back in 1950. It was found on a piece of land owned by a man named Otto Eulert who agreed to donate the find to paleontologist George Sternberg. Sternberg took possession of the rare find and decided to embed the skull in plaster, mimicking a more realistic exhibit. The specimen was pretty to look at, but there was an obvious problem.

“Unfortunately only one side of the skull was visible.”

That’s vertebrate paleontologist and curator at Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum Ken Carpenter.

“After they had removed it from the rock originally back in the 1950s, they built a wood frame around it and filled it in with plaster of Paris, leaving only the top visible. That was strictly for cosmetic reasons – to give it an appearance of a skull still in rock. They even colored the plaster to look like rock.”

With the information available at the time, Sternberg and his staff assumed the skull belonged to an ancient sea monster known as Brachauchenius lucasi, a specimen that had shown up before in the Midwest and in Texas.

But recently-uncovered photographs of the skull taken before it was lowered into its bed of plaster, clued Carpenter and his team into thinking there was more to the bones than originally thought.

“When we looked at the images we realized that the roof of the mouth was very different from what we had assumed,” said Carpenter. “At the time I was still at the Denver Museum. I arranged to have the specimen brought out to me and we removed it from the big block of plaster that it had been embedded in. Once we removed it and could actually look at the underside and the roof of the mouth in detail, we realized we had a totally different animal.”

The underside of the flattened skull was in remarkable shape considering what it had been through, and revealed all kinds of new information to Carpenter and his colleagues Bruce A. Schumacher and Michael J. Everhart. The team soon realized this was not the head of a Brachauchenius lucasi, but a new genus and species altogether. There are many subtle differences between the two reptiles and one big one: their size.

“It’s much larger than any of the other genus and species to which this had originally been assumed to be," Carpenter added. "This particular type has a very large head and very short neck and paddles on its flippers. You could think of it as the killer whale of its age. It was top predator.”

The creature is a relative of the plesiosaurus, though it has a much shorter neck and a larger head. Its official name:

“Megacephalosaurus eulerti.”

Credit www.oceansofkansas.com
A flattened skull of a Megacephalosaurus eulerti as seen in its former plaster mold at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Kansas.

That’s Megacepholasaurus eulerti, meaning “great-headed reptile,” named after the same Otto Eulert who graciously donated the skull after it was discovered on his land. It’s believed the creature reached lengths up to 30 feet long and lived roughly 91 million years ago in an ancient sea that extended from what’s now the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic, dividing the North American land mass in two. Carpenter and his colleagues’ findings were recently printed in the “Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology” – a publication at the forefront of research on dinosaurs and other ancient vertebrates.

What’s exciting about finding a new species, says Carpenter, is that future discoveries of another Megacephalosaurus could happen right here in Utah. Remnants of the smaller Brachauchenius lucasi – remember that’s the smaller reptile Sternberg thought he had all along – have been unearthed in Southern Utah near Grand Staircase National Monument.

“So it’s possible that this beast, the Megacephalosaurus, could in fact be found in Utah as well,” he added. “We have the same age rocks up here around Price. Who knows, it may yet turn up in my backyard.”

The now-plaster-free skull is on display at the Sternberg Museum in Hays, Kansas. You can see a gallery of images of the Megacephalosaurus skull and an artist rendition of the creature on our website, UPR.org. For Utah Public Radio, I’m Matt Jensen.