Mesa Museum Adds a New Dinosaur to its Herd

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Douglas Wolfe, who co-discovered the bones of the latest dinosaur addition at the museum, talks about the creature’s likely diet and other features.  Kimberly Carrillo/Tribune Staff Photographer

The Arizona Museum of Natural History unveiled the name of a new prehistoric creature to add to its collection – a relative of the well-known Tyrannosaurus rex.

The museum, in partnership with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, announced last week the Suskityrannus hazelae – a newly discovered tyrannosauroid dinosaur that stands at roughly 3 feet tall and 9 feet long.

More than 50 people filed into the museum’s Dinosaur Hall to listen to Douglas Wolfe, co-discoverer and CEO of Zuni Dinosaur Institute of Geo Sciences, talk about his team’s findings.

Wolfe, along with paleontologist Sterling Nesbitt of Virginia Tech, found two partial skeletons of the species in the Moreno Hill formation in the Zuni Basin of western New Mexico in the late 1990s – marking a 20-year journey to determine what they found.

The fossils date back 92 million years ago and are key pieces in understanding the tyrannosaur evolution, explained Wolfe.  

“This animal is an intermediate form between the very early Theropod dinosaurs – carnivores of the earlier protections,” he said. “And the bone-crunching giants roaming the landscape just before their extinction.”

Though the Suskityrannus is related to the massive “bone-crunching” T. rex, its body is only slightly longer than the skull of its full-grown cousin. With slender skulls and feet, it is believed to have weighed between 45 and 90 pounds.

The dinosaur’s diet most likely consisted of hunting small animals, said Wolfe, which can be concluded from features in its skull.

“There are teeth on both sides on the upper and lower jaws with little serrations on it, like a steak knife,” he said. “That’s one of the things that really make it clear it’s one of the advanced meat-eating dinosaurs.”

Another unique quirk is its feathery-like coat.

The first Suskityrannus skeleton was found in 1997 by Robert Denton, now a senior geologist with Terracon Consultants, and others during an expedition organized by Wolfe.

The second, which is more complete, was found in 1998 by Nesbitt, then a high school junior with a burgeoning interest in paleontology, and Wolfe.

While the two specimens were found within about 50 meters of each other, the researchers – whose findings have now been published in the latest online issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution – initially thought they discovered the remains of a dromaeosaur, such as a Velociraptor.

There were no known relatives of the T. rex at the time.

“We all have things in the closet we’d like to get done – this is a big thing,” said Wolfe. “This is the candles on the birthday cake for us. This is great.”

The name Suskityrannus hazelae is derived from “Suski,” the Zuni Native American tribe word for “coyote,” and the Latin word “tyrannus,” meaning king.

Wolfe said the Zuni Tribal Council granted the researchers permission to use “Suski” in the name.

‘Hazelae’ is for Hazel Wolfe, Douglas Wolfe’s wife, who made the fossil expeditions to the basin possible, he said.

At the museum, Paleo-artist Benjamin Paysnoe created a full-scale, fleshed out version of the dinosaur to be put on display, as well as a reproduction of its skeleton. The museum will also permanently house the Suskityrannus fossils.