Off the Scale

by John Martin

“Chicken” might not mean “scared” much longer, after people hear about the sharply taloned “Chicken from Hell.” That’s the nickname given by Matt Lamanna ’97 and colleagues to Anzu wyliei, a new genus and species of bird-like dinosaur whose bones were unearthed in the Dakota badlands. Lamanna, an assistant curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pa., and three collaborators announced their findings—and gave the dinosaur its official name—in a paper published this past March in the journal PLOS ONE.

Although Anzu, tipping the scale at more than 500 pounds, would dwarf modern poultry, on the much larger dinosaur scale it’s both large and small. “Anzu is actually one of the smallest dinosaurs that I’ve ever worked on,” Lamanna says. “Still, it’s the largest member of its particular dinosaur group, the Oviraptorosauria, ever found in North America—and the secondlargest oviraptorosaur overall, after Gigantoraptor from China.”

Lamanna outdid himself on the size scale six months later when, on September 4, in the journal Scientific Reports, he and colleagues revealed Dreadnoughtus schrani, one of the largest animals that ever strode the Earth. At 85 feet long and weighing up to 65 tons, the dinosaur weighed as much as a dozen elephants and more than eight Tyrannosaurus rex.

Lamanna was part of an international excavation team that unearthed the two partial skeletons of Dreadnoughtus during digs in southern Patagonia, Argentina, in Santa Cruz Province, between 2005 and 2009. The first of “Dread’s” bones to be discovered was a huge femur, or thigh bone.

“A bit of that was poking out of the ground. Our team dug around it and uncovered the whole bone. Even better, when we dug below the lower end of the femur, the shin bones were still there, right where they would have been when the dinosaur was alive,” explains Lamanna.

The bones of the two Dreadnoughtus skeletons have been digitally modeled in 3D, which will better enable paleontologists around the globe to study them despite geographic boundaries and the limitations of the animal’s massive size. “The femur alone weighs hundreds of pounds,” Lamanna says. “If it’s lying on a shelf and you want to examine the other side, you can either round up eight people and try to flip it over, or you can turn on your computer and spin our digital model of this bone with a flick of a mouse.”

Anzu wyliei, the wayward chicken, is an important discovery in its own right. With roughly 75 percent of the bones preserved, it is by far the most completely known oviraptorosaur ever found outside of Asia. It is also the most intact representative of an enigmatic oviraptorosaur subgroup known as the Caenagnathidae.

“After nearly a century of searching, we paleontologists finally have the fossils to show what these creatures looked like from virtually head to toe,” Lamanna says. “And in almost every way, they’re even weirder than we imagined.”

Approximately 11 feet long and 5 feet tall at the hip, Anzu would have resembled a gigantic, flightless bird. Its jaws were tipped with a toothless beak, and its head was adorned with a tall, rounded crest. The neck and hind legs were long and slender, like an ostrich. Although the Anzu specimens preserve only bones, close relations of the dinosaur have been found with fossilized feathers, strongly suggesting the new creature was feathered too.

But the resemblance to birds ends there— the forelimbs of Anzu’s were tipped with large, sharp claws, and its tail was long and robust. Says Lamanna, “‘Chicken from Hell’ is pretty appropriate—you wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley. We named it Anzu after a bird-like demon in Sumerian and Akkadian myth.”

The bones of Anzu were found within the 68–66-million-year-old rocks of the uppermost Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of North and South Dakota, renowned for fossils of familiar dinosaurs like T. rex and Triceratops. It’s the stuff that fuels a child’s imagination.

“I’m one of those dinosaur-loving kids who, in that sense, never really grew up,” Lamanna says. “According to my parents, I told them that I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was four. Although, I distinctly remember wanting to be an NFL running back, too.”

Lamanna grew up in Waterloo, N.Y., a few miles from the HWS campus in Geneva. When he was looking at colleges, HWS faculty—Professor Emeritus of Geoscience Don Woodrow, Professor of Geoscience Brooks McKinney, and Professor of Biology Jim Ryan— took him under their wing.

“I remember each of them sitting down with me in their offices, letting me pick their brains, talking about the kinds of research projects I could do under their supervision if I came to HWS,” he says.

Lamanna double-majored in biology and geoscience and got his master’s degree and Ph.D at the University of Pennsylvania—where he met his future wife, who is a science educator at the same museum and a course instructor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Lamanna has been involved in a number of discoveries of new dinosaurs in his career. He has named or co-named nine new species to date, and several more are on the way. Scale looms large in his pursuits.

“The scale of the animals I study is usually big—if not gigantic—by modern standards,” he says. “Another large-scale element is time—we paleontologists throw around terms like ‘100 million years ago’ as if we really have a grasp of what that means.

“I don’t think we, as a species, really comprehend time scales that are much longer than a human lifetime. Without getting too ‘soapboxy,’ I think that if humanity could take the long view, and appreciate how a lot of the things we’re doing now will impact future generations, we might actually change.”


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