Hi, everyone! In this edition of the Paleontological Society’s Paleo-Interviews, we’re discussing the brand new Arkansas State Dinosaur: Arkansaurus fridayi, with the paleontologist who named and described it – ReBecca Hunt-Foster!
With the new dinosaur representative of Arkansas making the news, we reached out to Hunt-Foster to see just what has inspired her to study paleontology, and how Arkansaurus came to see the light of day.
1. Hi, ReBecca! Thanks so much for joining us on the Paleontological Society Blog. Tell us a bit about your background and interests in paleontology. How’d your journey take you to working in public lands?
Thanks for having me! I grew up in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and I have always been interested in animals and rocks. Most of the fossil we had locally growing up were Paleozoic invertebrates, and I enjoyed collecting these, along with modern critter bones, as a young person. My mother is a librarian and she also helped to foster these interest, and would let me check out stacks of books to read, until I had to start over and read some of them all over again.
I was lucky enough to be mentored by Dr. Leo Carson Davis, the only vertebrate paleontologist in Arkansas at the time, and he was kind enough to take my on my first excavation in Arkansas, collecting Pleistocene fossils from a cave deposit. He, along with my parents, continued to foster my interest and love of paleontology through middle and high school. I attended the University of Arkansas where I earned my BS in Earth Sciences and then on to Texas Tech University to receive my MS in Geology. I had a chance to work on a variety of public lands during school, including for Alaska State Parks as an undergrad, and then at Big Bend National Park for my Masters research.
Upon graduation I also had a chance to work for a summer at Glacier National Park, where I worked on Precambrian stromatolites. Afterwards I continued to work with the National Park Service, writing reports about fossils known in various NPS units around the country, while also working my full time job at Augustana College, and then later at the Museum of Western Colorado. In late 2013 I began my current position at the Bureau of Land Management where I am the District Paleontologist for Canyon Country District, which encompasses 3.5 billion acres of public lands in southeastern Utah. I feel truly lucky to work in one of the best areas for Mesozoic fossils in North America.
2. We’re very excited to hear about your recent specimen description from Arkansas, the aptly-named ornithomimid dinosaur Arkansaurus fridayi. Tell us more about the history of this specimen and your involvement in its study.
Arkansaurus was discovered in 1972 near Locksburg, in southwestern Arkansas by Mr. Joe Friday. The bones were discovered on his private land in an area that had been recently disturbed for some construction, and Mr. Friday spotted them coming out of this ditch. He placed the fossils in his service station for people to view, and they were an item of curiosity for the town’s people.
It was not until the fossils were inspected by Dr. Doy Zachry who then shared them with his colleague at the University of Arkansas Department of Geology, paleontologist Dr. James Quinn, that they were determined to be the first known dinosaur bones known from Arkansas. Mr. Friday donated the bones to the university, and Dr. Quinn and a crew returned to his land and located a few more additional bones. The fossils where then taken to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting that Fall, which was held in Lincoln, Nebraska, and shared with Dr. Ned Colbert, who identified them as being from an animal closely related to Ornithomimus velox. The following year, Dr. Quinn presented on the fossils at the Geological Society of America South-Central meeting, which was held in Little Rock, Arkansas. Any work that was done between 1974 and 1977 is unfortunately unknown to me, as Dr. Quinn passed away in an accident in 1977 and his files have not been located. We do know that at some point during this time he unofficially coined the name “Arkansaurus fridayi” for the remains.
I came to the fossils when I was an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas. I was working at the campus museum at the time, where replicas of the fossils were exhibited and interpreted. I was aware of them, but thought that a definitive work had been done on them at the time. It was not until I met Dr. Jim Kirkland at the 2001 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Bozeman, Montana, that I was told they had not been described. Dr. Kirkland contacted me again once I returned home from the meeting and encouraged me to work on the fossils. I began my work in 2002 and wrote a short paper for my undergraduate thesis on these fossils in 2003. At the time there had been limited work done on ornithomimids, especially from the Early Cretaceous and from North America, so I did as much as I could with what was available during this period of time. It was not until 2016 when reading the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology that I found an article redescribing the Ornithomimus velox material, which spurred my interest and encouraged me to look into the Arkansas fossils again. I contacted Mary Suter, my former supervisor and the University of Arkansas Museum Collections Manager, and was able to get the material on loan and begin my work renewed. It was very full circle for me to be able to work with Mary and present on these fossils a week before the name, Arkansaurus, was officially designated, at the Geological Society of America South-Central meeting, which was again held in Little Rock, Arkansas, 45 years after Dr. Quinn’s initial presentation there.
3. What makes Arkansaurus so important to unlocking more information on dinosaur population distribution in North America? Why is it important to the State of Arkansas, in particular?
Ornithomimids from North America are almost exclusively known from the Late Cretaceous. Not much has been documented about the Early Cretaceous record of ornithomimids, and most of what has been known has been documented from Asia, along with other specimens in Africa and Europe. The North American record has been pretty minimal, and restricted to material from the Arundel Clay and the Cloverly Formations. Dr. Kirkland first noted the resemblance of Arkansaurus to material excavated from the Cedar Mountain Formation of Utah in the early 1990’s, now called Nedcolbertia. At that time there was not much comparable material, and Nedcolbertia was tentatively assigned to a basal coelurosaur. Dr. Kirkland and I have been speaking for years about revising the taxon and we knew that it was an early ornithomimid, in fact the earliest currently known from North America. The Arkansaurus project was the “Phase 1” part of this Early Cretaceous ornithomimosaurs project to be completed, and the re-description of Nedcolbertia, along with the revision of all Early Cretaceous North American ornithomimosaur taxa is the “Phase 2” project that we are currently working on, and was first presented on last year at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Calgary, Alberta (Hunt-Foster and Kirkland, 2017).
Paleontologists have recently found other animals, such as the sauropod dinosaur Mierasaurus, which lived alongside Nedcolbertia, in modern-day Utah; these animals have ancestors that suggest they originated in Europe. These animals would have immigrated to North America across a land bridge during a time of lower sea levels during the Early Cretaceous, as the two continents began to move away from one another. Arkansaurus helps us fill in the ornithomimid family tree, especially in North America.
Arkansaurus is particularly special for the State of Arkansas for two main reasons:
1) The remains of Arkansaurus were the first official dinosaur body fossils discovered from the state. Dinosaur tracks had been known from the state, but up until recently, no other bones of dinosaurs had been discovered.
2) In 2017 Arkansaurus was named the Arkansas State Dinosaur. The name “Arkansaurus” had been used unofficially since the 1970’s, and I worked together with Representative Greg Leding to make sure the legislation reflected the correct facts about the dinosaur. The original idea of the bill came from high school student Mason Cypress Oury, who noted that Arkansas was without a state dinosaur. Scientific research and publication moved slower than politics in this instance, but it all worked out in the end.
4. Do you have any advice for our readers, especially students and young people, who might be interested in fossils but aren’t sure if they have many resources on their home turf?
If you have a local museum, reach out to them. Offer to volunteer or work for them in collections or as a docent, and have a chance to learn more about the paleontological history of your area. You never know what projects might be waiting for you in a drawer that hasn’t been opened in a few decades. A fresh set of eyes is sometimes all that is needed.
Also, please reach out to local paleontologists in your area. They are a wealth of knowledge and often love to foster local interest in paleontology. They can really help guide you on your path. I am so grateful for all of the people who took the time to respond to letters I wrote during my early days of interest in paleontology, particularly Drs. Leo Caron David, Ernie Lundelius, Richard Stucky, Phil Currie and Jack Horner. There are hundreds of people who have touched my short career, more than I can name, but each have helped support, teach and guide me, and helped me to obtain my goals. I would not be here without them.
5. Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
Always feel free to reach out to local paleontologists with questions. We are often happy and excited to see your fossil discoveries and will do our best to help you identify them. I am forever appreciative to Mr. Friday and his family for their generous donation of Arkansaurus to the University of Arkansas and I am happy we were able to name the fossils in Mr. Friday’s honor. We often rely on members of the public to help us fill in the history of life on our Earth, and we value all of the contributions that have been made, and those that are still to come. Thank you!
Thank you so much for your time and for joining us on the PS Blog! Readers, if you’d like to access a copy of the original paper, you can reach out to ReBecca at rhuntfoster -at- blm -dot- gov.
Original official Press Release follows:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 19, 2018
ARKANSAS STATE DINOSAUR HAS TIES TO EUROPE
CONTACT: ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster,
rhuntfoster -at- blm -dot- gov
A new species of dinosaur unique to Arkansas was announced today in the Journal
of Vertebrate Paleontology. The new dinosaur, Arkansaurus fridayi, was named by a team originating at the University of Arkansas, led by paleontologist ReBecca Hunt-
Foster, a University of Arkansas alumna who now works as a Bureau of Land Management paleontologist in Utah.
Arkansaurus lived in what is now the state of Arkansas approximately 113 million
years ago during the Early Cretaceous period, and represents the second-oldest
dinosaur of its kind known in North America.
Arkansaurus, which means “Arkansas’s Reptile,” was an ancestral relative of other
North American Late Cretaceous ornithomimids like Ornithomimus and
Struthiomimus. Ornithomimids are usually identified by their long necks and beaks,
resembling large ostriches with arms and long tails. Arkansaurus was identified
based on the remains of its right foot, which were compared with other known fossil
relatives and found to contain a combination of unique anatomical details.
The fossils were originally discovered in 1972 by Mr. Joe B. Friday on his land near
Locksburg, Arkansas, following an earthmoving project. The name of the dinosaur
reflects his discovery, and is published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
Arkansaurus lived near the coast and was found in an area that would have been
about 100 miles from the sea, which then covered most of Texas and Louisiana to
the south. Arkansaurus is the first known dinosaur represented by fossilized bones
from Arkansas, although dinosaur tracks have been discovered in the “Natural
Hunt-Foster and her colleagues continue to work on research related to fossil finds
in the area, hoping to prove that dinosaur species roamed the Earth during this time
and were able to move freely around most of the United States, and that these
ornithomimosaurs likely originated in Europe.
The researchers’ results appear in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. You will
find the full abstract of the journal article attached for your reference. Images are
also available from Hunt-Foster for press use.
“A new ornithomimosaur from the Early Cretaceous Trinity Group of Arkansas”
Authors: ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Utah Bureau of Land Management, Canyon Country
District; James Quinn, University of Arkansas, Department of Geosciences,
Ozark Hall, Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701 (deceased)
Published: Online in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (JVP) is the leading journal of professional
vertebrate paleontology and the flagship publication of the Society. It was founded
in 1980 by Dr. Jiri Zidek and publishes contributions on all aspects of vertebrate
The article appears in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 38(1), published by
Taylor and Francis.
Abstract: Whereas ornithomimosaurs (ostrich-mimic dinosaurs) are well known
from Asia during the Early Cretaceous, they are less well known from this time in
North America. Represented by a single specimen consisting of pedal elements, a
new North American taxon, Arkansaurus fridayi, gen. et sp. nov., consists of a nearly
complete right foot, recovered from the Lower Cretaceous (Albian/Aptian) Trinity
Group of Arkansas. Arkansaurus fridayi can be distinguished from other
ornithomimosaurs based on differentiated pedal unguals, a laterally compressed
third metatarsal that is ovoid in proximal view, and a distal ungual with a very weak
flexor tubercle, lacking spurs. The condition of this third metatarsal suggests that
Arkansaurus fridayi is more basal than Asiatic ornithomimosaurs of similar age, but
consistent with older North American forms. This specimen provides knowledge of
a poorly understood radiation of ornithomimosaurs in Appalachia and is the only
known saurischian dinosaurian fossil from the state of Arkansas