University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) professor George Engelmann discovered his love for prehistoric creatures when he was just four-years old flipping through National Geographic.
He grew up in Chicago and spent his days looking at fossils in the Field Museum, where his parents were members. He didn’t predict he would find his own fossils decades later.
Engelmann and his colleagues discovered a new genus and species of pterosaur, or pterodactyl, in northeastern Utah.
The fossils are from the late Triassic period, about 200 million years ago. Pterosaurs evolved earlier than dinosaurs and are not directly related. Engelmann and his colleagues named the pterosaur, which was featured in a Newsweek article, Caelestiventus hanseni, or heavenly wind.
The fossil was found in a quarry the researchers call “The Saints and Sinners Quarry.” Engelmann and his colleagues, Brooks Britt from Brigham Young University (BYU) and Dan Chure, who recently retired from the Dinosaur National Monument, conducted the study.
“Dan Chure and I had a project in 2006 to look at a stratigraphic unit called the nugget sandstone,” Engelmann said. “No one had found anything in that unit before, but because of the exposures we saw, we thought there may be some fossils present.”
In 2008, they found a locality where bone was exposed, and in 2009 they opened the quarry. In order to get a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to collect fossils at the site, Engelmann and Chure needed to have a designated repository for the fossils to be stored. They contacted Britt, who works at BYU’s Museum of Paleontology.
“We thought the museum would be a good place for the fossils because it’s relatively close and they have a fossil preparation lab,” Engelmann said.
The fossil preparation is mainly performed by students. They use sharpened needles to carefully remove the sandstone from the fossil.
“They’re almost like dental tools,” Engelmann said.
The fossil preparation isn’t done on site. When Engelmann and his colleagues discover fossils, they excavate a block of the surrounding sediment and ship it to the lab because it is a more stable environment.
The block that contained the pterosaur was removed sometime between 2010 and 2013.
“We didn’t recognize what it was at first,” Engelmann said.
After they examined it more, they realized the fossils are from a pterosaur. They have the lower and upper jaws, half of the brain case and some other fragments, including the tip of a wing.
“If we removed the pterosaur from the rock completely, it would crumble,” Engelmann said. “So, we removed it from one side, and left it on the other side. Then, we used a CT scan. The results can be turned into 3D images and 3D print.”
The discovery changes scientists’ perception of the pterosaurs range.
“All of the other pterosaurs are from Europe, except for one from Greenland,” Engelmann said. “So, this extends their range geographically.”
Other pterosaurs were also found in marine deposits, so the bones were compacted. Engelmann and his colleagues found their specimen in sand dunes, so the fossil is better preserved.
This wasn’t the first fossil Engelmann has discovered, but it is the first one they have published and named because of its influence on the prehistoric record. He and his colleagues have unearthed more than 20,000 fossils from the quarry so far and hope to discover more.
“Whenever we find something, there’s just something about it,” Engelmann said. “It makes your day.”