During an internship at the Petrified Forest in Arizona, Idaho State University Ph.D. student Xavier Jenkins and a group of National Park Service interns made a spectacular find. They found fossils of a strange reptile called a drepanosaur, which probably lived before dinosaurs.
Drepanosaurs lived during the Triassic Period, a time known as the dawning age of dinosaurs.
Jenkin’s colleague Virginia Tech graduate student Ben Kligman happened across the fossil-rich site they called “Thunderstorm Ridge.” The new creature was “quite literally found in a deposit of fossilized poop,” Jenkins recalled.
“It is genuinely so surprising that a site like Thunderstorm Ridge took this long to be discovered, and it’s revealing a hidden diversity of ancient life at Petrified Forest,” Jenkins told CNN.
Millions of years ago, the Petrified Forest was swampy, with gentle rivers and lakes. Today, it’s one of the country’s oldest national parks.
Jenkins suggested that the fossil shows that millions of years ago the area might have been strangely familiar. Like today, animals occupied all available ecological niches. Thus, you could find animals swimming, flying, climbing, and burrowing.
“These prehistoric ecosystems are not as alien as once thought, and are … eerily familiar in composition to those of today,” Jenkins said.
Drepanosaur: a Cross Between an Anteater, Chameleon, and Bird
The creature dubbed Skybalonyx skapter lived 220 million years ago. In Greek, that translates to “dung-claw digger.” The name is a reference to an unusually wide claw on the second finger.
After studying the fossils, a team of researchers says it looked like a cross between an anteater and chameleon. With the enlarged claw, the creature dug a burrow like a mole or an echidna. Previously, it was thought all drepanosaurs were insectivorous tree-dwellers.
A news release from Petrified Forest National Park described the appearance:
“Drepanosaurs have been noted to have interesting features, such as “enlarged second claws, bird-like beaks, and tails ending with a claw,” the release said.
The University of California Museum of Paleontology described the creature as “seemingly drawn at random from evolution’s spare parts box.”
Thousands of Fossils Discovered
According to WRTV, the team found the fossil by a method similar to panning for gold.
“Due to their small size, the remains were reportedly difficult to find using traditional methods. Essentially, research teams used a series of metal screens and water to sift and break down rocks to find the fossils,” reported WRTV.
The discovery of a new ancient reptile is just the beginning. Amazingly, the lead paleontologist, Adam Marsh, says there were more than 3,000 fossils discovered in the area over two years.
See what Skybalonyx skapter possibly looked like in the artwork below:
A Petrified Forest Rich in Life
Notably, the discovery shows life in the Petrified Forest lived in the area longer than previously thought.
In related news, a paleontological team from Virginia Tech discovered an extremely rare frog fossil near Petrified Forest National Park in 2019. The frog also lived during the Triassic, thought to be living in near a river where large horsetail-like plants and giant trees grew.
“The environment at the time was very different from how you or I would think of a river. There were no angiosperms (flowering plants) at the time,” said professor Sterling Nesbitt.
At the close of the Triassic period, a wave of volcanic activity caused a spike of CO2 in the atmosphere. As a result of rapid global warming and ocean acidification, most life, including the drepanosaurs, was wiped out. Afterward, the age of now more familiar dinosaurs began.
Recommended reading: Researchers Discover Fossilized Remains that Rewrite Antarctica’s History
See more about the bizarre drepanosaurs from PBS Eons below: