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October 31, 2008

U of C researcher dug through drawers, fossils to discover dinosaur skull

Some people might think dinosaur discoveries involve a lot of digging in the dirt, but U of C researcher Laura Porro’s research involved digging of a different sort.

In the 1960s, numerous fossil expeditions to South Africa proved more profitable than organizers anticipated.

“They literally found tons and tons of material,” Porro said. “A lot of it just got shoved away in drawers.”

It was in these drawers that Porro, a post-doctoral researcher, was digging when she gained permission to search through the collections of the South African Museum in Cape Town in 2006. Her specialization in the feeding activities of dinosaurs had focused her attention on the heterodontosaurus, a dinosaur that marked the evolutionary stages between meat- and plant-eating dinosaurs. The only two known specimens of heterodontosaurus were located in the South African Museum, prompting Porro to fly to Cape Town in the first place.

But rumors of forgotten fossils had floated around the paleontological world for some time. Richard Butler of London’s Natural History Museum had been collaborating with Porro on her research.

“He told me to keep an eye out,” Porro said.

Taking Butler’s advice, Porro devoted part of her time in Africa to searching for missing fossils. It led to her discovery of the heterodontosaurus skull. The name literally means “different-toothed lizard” because the dinosaur’s skull contains both sharp incisors for tearing meat and molars for grinding plants.

The fact that Porro’s forgotten skull was of a juvenile only made the find more valuable. Young dinosaurs are rarer than adults, and the skull, even though it doesn’t represent the entire dinosaur, can fill in large gaps in the understanding of the growth processes of heterodontosaurus.

“Right now we’re working on finite element analysis of the skull,” Porro said, referring to a method that takes a 3-D image of the heterodontosaurus and recreates how it would move and work in the real world, based on the properties of bones and muscle.

All three heterodontosaurus skulls remain in South Africa.