IT’S NOT SO FEARSOME NOW, save for the teeth. But imagine adding reptilian flesh, then inserting a cold, inquisitive eye into the flat, three-foot-long fossilized skull of the Bisti Beast, New Mexico’s own Tyrannosauroid, and suddenly you’re seeing the dominant predator of the Late Cretaceous period.
Seventy-four million years ago in North America, when the Bisti Beast first appeared on the scene, a shallow inland sea separated the continent’s eastern and western shores. The bipedal dinosaur hunted smaller prey through tropical terrain with its binocular vision and a set of 64 razor-sharp daggers lodged in its jaws. An adult Bistahieversor sealeyi could weigh a ton or more, and it might grow as long as 30 feet.
An older cousin by about 10 million years to the T. rex, it stomped an area known today as the San Juan Basin, where the fossil of the most complete skull specimen ever found was excavated in 1998 by Thomas Williamson, the curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in Albuquerque. Williamson named the Beast, which represented a new genus and species, after its location and the site’s discoverer, volunteer researcher Paul Sealey.
San Juan’s Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, where the skull of the Bisti Beast was found, is a hotbed of fossil research. In fact, New Mexico’s role in paleontology, the branch of science concerned with the fossils of animals and plants, is profound.
The state’s fossil record, among the most complete in the world, spans the region’s entire stratigraphic column, extending back millions of years. More than 700 species and 100 genera of previously unknown life are represented by these fossil finds, many of which, including the Bisti Beast, are on display or housed in the museum’s storage.
“Our museum has the largest collection of fossils in the Southwest,” says executive director Anthony Fiorillo. “But so many of the specimens are fragile and difficult to transport, which limits what we can put on display.” Now, with the help of a new $195,533 grant, even more of these precious records of the past can be properly cared for and displayed for visitors to the museum.
“BECAUSE OF NEW MEXICO’S ROCK LAYERS, we have the whole gamut,” says Nicole Volden, the museum’s geoscience collections manager. “It’s more than 500 years of biodiversity of life on Earth.”
More recent discoveries in New Mexico, such as the Bisti Beast, are highlighted in the museum’s current exhibition Back to Bones, which showcases the major role New Mexico plays in paleontology. The fossils represent some of New Mexico’s most significant paleontological discoveries, including Jurassic- and Cretaceous-era dinosaurs, inland sea ammonites, and 200 million-year-old reptiles and amphibians.
Fossils are critical to our understanding of the evolutionary past. It makes sense to want to preserve them, and the largest specimens, many of which are dinosaurs, are delicate, despite having long ago turned to stone. A common but not ideal solution for displaying them is to drape the rough plaster molds that house larger specimens with black velvet, which was done for the skull of the Bisti Beast.
Preserving specimens in controlled environments and minimizing the risk of damage is harder in practice than in theory. At the Museum of Natural History & Science, fragile specimens placed on trays can easily break when moved. Some mighty big bones are stored at the museum, but they can be riddled with hairline fractures that split during attempts to lift them. So they remain in storage, where only researchers can access them. Formfitting cases, which minimize vibration and can, in some instances, fit over the top and bottom of fossils, provide a tighter fit than even a custom coffin, ensuring the continued longevity of these treasures. But that takes money and materials.
Last year, the museum’s geoscience department received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for improved care and access to approximately 1,400 oversize fossils from its collection of 90,000 specimens. “It not only gives us the tools we need to preserve our incredible fossils,” Fiorillo says, “but it also makes them more accessible to members of the public who want to learn more about New Mexico’s fossil history.”
ON-SITE, PUBLIC ACCESS TO THE FOSSIL COLLECTION comes in two forms: exhibitions and behind-the-scenes tours. The main prep laboratory in the research and education department is larger than the public-access lab in the exhibition FossilWorks. That lab provides museum visitors a glimpse, through plate-glass windows, into researchers’ exacting task of extracting fossils from the rock in which they’re embedded.
“You can see lots of fossils in process,” Volden explains of the public-facing lab. “They use various hand- and air-powered tools to remove the rock.”
It takes millions of years for an organism to fossilize, a process that typically involves the replacement of shell or bone with minerals. Extracting fossils from rock is tricky since, depending on the type of mineral replacement, the bones can end up with the same chemical structure as their lithic casements. This is the careful action that visitors can view, watching air-powered vacuum tubes collect dirt and dust as staff members, behind lighted magnifiers, separate bone from stone.
“Changes break down a specimen over time. But for fossilization to occur, they have to be buried,” Volden says. “What happens during fossilization is, a fossil is buried and, usually, water percolates down through the ground and dissolves the minerals and recrystallizes inside the spaces of the bones. The bone itself can still be smooth and solid, so there’s a textural difference. You just have to find the boundary between rock and bone, and prepare for the extraction along it.”
A large majority of the museum’s outstanding collection rarely sees the light of day, since these fossils are stored primarily for research. But the grant changes that.
“Safety for the specimens means that we’re not dragging them across the shelves and damaging them,” Volden says. “And, for us, it means we’re not hurting our backs trying to lift them.”
A process of transferring fossils from old and crumbling mounts to new ones made of layered, formfitting fiberglass and plaster, so the specimen is fully supported, provides a better viewing experience in and out of collections. The mounts are lined with felt or foam to create a soft surface. The specimens they hold include vertebrates such as fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
Among the museum’s vast holdings, the Bisti Beast remains a star attraction. The animatronic replica of the “Monster from the Mesozoic,” which snarls and snaps its jaws, waits in the lobby to startle museumgoers with a quick jerk of its head and a look of unmistakable hunger and intelligence.
Not to be outdone, the long-necked Sauropod Seismosaurus, a supergiant of the dinosaur age, fills the museum’s Jurassic Hall with its entire skeletal frame. The Seismosaurus, the first fossil to be cleaned and prepped in the FossilWorks lab, could reach lengths of more than 80 feet and weigh more than 14 metric tons. The Seismosaurus, like the Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Bisti Beast, is among the most famous dinosaur species native to the region.
But a gap of approximately 350 million years lies between Seismosaurus and the museum’s oldest specimens (500 million-year-old, Cambrian-era trace fossils). The span of time between Seismosaurus and the Bisti Beast is about as long as the period between the Beast’s time and our own.
The mysteries contained in those lengths of time are mind-boggling to consider. As long as New Mexico’s strata continue yielding so many secrets, the state’s paleontology points the way to a greater understanding of the prehistoric past.
Michael Abatemarco’s favorite cinematic dinosaur battles range from Triceratops versus the T. rex in the silent movie The Lost World (1925) to the same face-off in The Last Dinosaur (1977).
A CONFLICT AS OLD AS TIME
An eternal battle is poised to pop off outside the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.
Just imagine the heavyset Triceratops gutting a T. rex. Or how about a savage T. rex fight with New Mexico’s native Tyrannosauroid, the Bisti Beast?
Well, first, meet Spike, the massive Pentaceratops sculpted by David A. Thomas and placed outside the entrance of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, in Albuquerque. Spike was modeled on a dinosaur discovered in New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands, where he stomped along the shore of a now-extinct Cretaceous-era sea, eating vegetation from subtropical swamps. His species’ name means “five-horned face.”
Alberta, a carnivorous Albertosaurus from the family Tyrannosauridae, is beside him, ready to pounce with an intimidating set of teeth. Discovered in Alberta, Canada, Alberta lived during the Late Cretaceous period. This slender, dangerous beast could grow as long as 30 feet and weigh as much as 2.5 metric tons. Spike rings in the same, weight-wise, making them a well-matched pair.
“Iconic” is more like it—the squat, horned, four-legged dino versus the Tyrannosaur. Inside the museum’s exhibit halls, they’ve got the bones to prove this fight—or something like it—wasn’t just the fever dream of a talented special-effects artist from the movies. Toy versions of the standoff are available for purchase in the museum.