Researchers made quite a find this week in Utah: a new species of raptor dinosaur. The ancient creature, a meat-eater, was small and fast, with talon-like toes.
"These animals were incredibly fast, incredibly intelligent and some of them wielded very significant claws and sharp teeth," Dr. Lindsay Zanno of the New University of Wisconsin tells NPR's Scott Simon. Zanno led the dig team that made the discovery.
Zanno named the species Talos Sampsoni after her friend and colleague, Dr. Scott Sampson, also known as "Dr. Scott" on the television series, Dinosaur Train. Talos Sampsoni was feathered and about 5-feet long and about 2-and-a-half feet at the hips, Zanno says. "Definitely an overgrown vicious Labrador retriever-sized animal," she says.
Michael Knell, a graduate student at Montana State University, actually made the discovery. Knell had been hunting the Badlands in Southern Utah for fossilized turtles. "He turned the corner and found one of the most amazing raptor-dinosaur specimens we have from the late Cretaceous in North America," Zanno says.
The bones were intact and, in the ground, looked the way they would have in life — a discovery, she says, that is fairly rare in North America.
"Most dinosaur specimens that we have have been laying out on the surface for a long time and the bones have become scattered," Zanno says.
The discovery is significant not because it reveals anything new about the biology of these animals, Zanno says, but rather because it's a piece of the puzzle researchers had speculated about but never confirmed. Zanno says that footprint evidence suggested that the specialized talon on the foot of the raptor dinosaur wasn't used for walking and was regularly put in harm's way. But this kind of evidence is ambiguous.
"Finding Talos was something we were all waiting for and was confirmation we'd been speculating about for a long time," she says.
The dinosaur will soon go on display at the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City.
As for Knell? "He's still plugging away at his degree and hopefully getting some good fanfare out of his important discovery," Zanno says.