In our 34th episode of I Know Dino, we had the pleasure of speaking with paleontologist Dr. Jim Kirkland. Dr. Jim Kirkland is the Utah State Paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey. He has discovered and described a long list of dinosaurs, including the first Jurassic ankylosaur, the oldest horned-dinosaur Zuniceratops, and ornithopods such as Eolambia and Velafrons, and of course Utahraptor. And he has authored and co-authored more than 75 professional papers. He is also adjunct Associate Professor at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah and associate curator of the Natural History of Utah. And he has written a Star Trek novel, called First Frontier, with Diane Carey.
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In this episode, we discuss:
- The dinosaur of the day: Utahraptor, whose name means “Utah robber”
- From Cretaceous period
- Species is Utahraptor ostrommaysorum (found in eastern Utah)
- Largest Dromaeosauridae (family, also known as raptors); other dromaeosaurids include Velociraptor and Deinonychus
- Before Utahraptor, paleontologist thought raptors were all small and only lived in the late Cretaceous
- Most dromaeosaurs (raptors) lived towards the end of the Cretaceous, but Utahraptor lived during the early Cretaceous, around 50 million years earlier. So it’s interesting that other raptors were much smaller, since the trend for many dinosaurs was to grow bigger.
- Holotype consists of skull fragments, tibia, claws, and some caudal (tail) vertebrae; is about twice the length of Deinonychus
- Largest Utahraptor is estimated to be 23 ft (7 m) long and weigh around 1,100 lb (500 kg); about same size as a polar bear
- Type species named by Kirkland, Gaston and Burge in 1993 for John Ostrom, paleontologist from Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History and Chris Mays (dino robotics pioneer) from Dinamation International
- Ostrom theorized in the 1970s (before it became widespread) that raptors such as Deinonychus were ancestors of modern birds
- The species was originally going to be named after Steven Spielberg, but as Jim Kirkland mentioned, it was changed at the last minute to avoid a potential lawsuit
- Utahraptor was formally described in 1993 (shortly after Jurassic Park was released)
- In Jurassic Park, the velociraptor is half the size in real life. But the large size is more similar to Utahraptor, some people have said it could be a combination of Deinoychus and Utahraptor
- First fossils of giant dromaeosaurs found in the Brigham Young University’s Dalton Well Quarry (discovered in the late 1960s by Lin Ottinger), and a few specimens were prepared (out of hundreds collected) by Jim Jensen and his crew in 1975
- Bones from Dalton Well were well preserved but a mix of many different individual dinosaurs
- Second group of giant dromaeosaur fossils (including a foot claw) found in 1991 and 1992, during excavations of the Gaston Quarry
- Another, large “carnosaur” was found at the Dalton Well site in addition to Utahraptor, but it’s unclear how the two large theropods lived alongside each other
- A new dromaeosaur was discovered recently (named in 2012) in the Cedar Mountain Formation (where Utahraptor was found). Called Yurgovuchia doellingi, it had a unique tail skeleton similar to Utahraptor (large, flexible tail) and is probably in the same clade as Utahraptor, Achillobator, and Dromaeosaurus (about same size as a coyote)
- Utahraptor was probably warm-blooded (active predator)
- Several claws were found, has a sickle-claw and the rest are called manual claws (tended to be very thin)
- Due to the specialized manual claws, scientists do not think it gave rise to other known dromaeosaurs, and instead there may have been an older common dromaeosaur ancestor (early Cretaceous or late Jurassic)
- Had 9-inch long sickle-claws (nails were probably 15 inches)
- Three fingers on each hand and four-toed feet
- Utahraptor had enlarged toe joints, so that it’s sickle claw could raise up and backward so as not to be injured while running (but flexed claw out when attacking)
- Utahraptor had blade-like manual claws (different from Deinonychus and other smaller dromaeosaurs which had long arms so as to hold its prey while attacking with its sickle-claw it’s possible the force of its kick to the prey “may have dislodged them”) but Utahraptor was much heavier and probably wouldn’t have been thrown off balance due to the force of its kick, so its hands were free to help kill the prey
- Probably had very strong legs, used to slash prey with its sickle-claw
- Based on Utahraptor’s size, it may have been able to make 5-6 feet long cuts with one slash by rotating its limbs and flexing its claw (probably could have killed prey with one kick)
- Bipedal and agile
- Based on the length of the tibia (scientists think it was subequal in length to the femur, like in other large theropods), scientists think Utahraptor were not as fast proportionally as Deinonychus or Velociraptor (would have been at least as fast as iguanodonts in the area and maybe faster than sauropods)
- Like other dromaeisauridae, had a caudal vertebrae to stiffen its tail, for balance
- Utahraptor had blade-like, serrated teeth (one tooth was 45 mm or 1.7 in long)
- Premaxillary teeth are different from other described dromaeosaurs (had simple, blunt serrations, except for Dromaeosaurus–so Utahraptor may be in subfamily Dromaeosaurinae instead of Velociraptorinae)
- Utahraptor had large eyes
- Had a curved, flexible neck
- No feathers found with Utahraptor specimens, but strong evidence that dromaeosaurids had feathers (partly because Microraptor, one of the oldest known dromaeosaurs, had feathers, as well as other dromaeosaurids)
- Utahraptor’s feathers probably gave it an added lift, but would not have flown
- Utahraptor was the most intelligent animal of its time and habitat
- Utahraptor co-existed nodosaur (spiny and armored), iguandons and sauropods
- May have gone after larger prey (iguanodonts, sauropods up to 65 ft or 20 m long)
- Dromaeosaurs are sophisticated hunters, and could hunt prey bigger than themselves (dromaeosaurs that were 11.5 ft or 3.5m long and 70 kg or 150 lb could successfully hunt prey that was 8 m or 26 ft long and 1000-2000 kg or 2200-4400 lbs)
- Utahraptor may have hunted in groups
- Until 2014, only isolated specimens of Utahraptor have been found, but there’s evidence that Deinonychus hunted in packs, so scientists think other dromaeosaurs such as Utahraptor may have hunted in packs too
- 2014: A 16-foot adult, 4 adolescents, and 3-foot baby Utahraptor were found together in Utah, which may give insight into how they behaved (Dr. Kirkland heading the study)
- Kirkland heard about the site in 2001 when a geology student found what looked like a human arm bone, but turned out to be part of a dinosaur foot (hollow bone, which meant carnivore)
- The 9-ton block of sandstone has many Utahraptors in it; fossils re packed tight, some stacked 3 feet thick, so they may have died together or at different times in quicksand
- Dromaeosaurs are some of the rarest dinosaurs in the North American fossil record, according to paleontologist Stephen Brusatte, from the University of Edinburgh
- Kirkland called the find “the Rosetta stone for Utah dinosaur collecting”
- The bones are in sandstone and red mudstone. In the Cretaceous, lakes surrounded the area, and as the lakes drained, it would have turned the ground to quicksand. Probably killed the Utahraptors and preserved them.
- Also in the area was an iguanodont (scent may have attracted the Utahraptors)
- Because of Jurassic Park, raptors are often depicted as pack hunters, but there’s not much actual evidence for it (best evidence is a trackway in China that appears to show a group of dromaeosaurids going after an iguanodontian
- The find may determine whether Utahraptor hunted in packs or not
- Ways to see if they hunted together are if the skeletons show interweaving or the degree the bones were damaged by sun and exposure before being buried, to show if they were buried at the same time or at different times
- Will take years to study fully
- Pictures at http://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2015/01/11/ams-scientists-unearth-9-ton-quicksand-block-containing-utahraptor-skeletons/#.VZ2hDxNVhHw
- Robert Bakker (actually suggested the name for the Utahraptor genus) wrote Raptor Red (first novel, published in 1995)
- Told from POV of Utahraptor Raptor Red, using many of Bakker’s theories about dinosaur behaviors, intelligence, and habitats (as well as studies of modern animals)
- Follows a year of Red’s life (loses her mate, finds her sister, struggles to survive)
- Bakker was inspired from Ernest Thompson Seton’s works, which show life through the POV of predators
- Bakker’s goal was to portray predators as more than just evil (empathetic)
- Got mostly positive feedback, but some critics thought the public would think Bakker’s theories on Utahraptors were fact
- One reviewer compared it to Pride and Prejudice (Red’s sister does not approve of Red’s new mate)
- Daily Variety reported in 1996 that producer Robert Halmi Sr. made deals with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to adapt Raptor Red (and Animal Farm), but no official projects were announced
- In 1999 BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs portrayed Utahraptor as living in Europe (but it only has been found in the U.S.)
- Can see Utahraptor at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Brigham Young University Museum of Paleontology and USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum
- Many dinosaurs in North America had similar-looking relatives in Europe and Asia during the Cretaceous (because of the continental drift). Utahraptor’s counterpart was Achillobator, a smaller version that lived in central Asia and had extra-thick Achilles tendons in its heels
- Dromaeosaurs are “swift lizards”
- Dromaeosaurs had unique wrist-joints that allowed hands to pivot sideways (similar to a bird folding its wing)
- Dromaeosaurs are evidence that dinosaurs were active, related to birds, and probably warm-blooded
- Dromaeosaurine is a subfamily of Dromaeosauridae
- Another subfamily is velociraptorine
- Dromaeosaurines have stout, box-shaped skulls compared to other subfamilies of dromaeosaurids (narrow snouts); dromaeosaurines had thicker legs (built for strength, not speed)
- Dromaeosaurines lived in the US and Canada, Mongolia, and possibly Denmark and Ethiopia (teeth found in Ethiopia, may have been a dromaeosaurine from the late Jurassic)
- Late Cretaceous dromaeosaurines were small (6 ft or 1.8 m long)
- Fun Fact: Sinosauropteryx, which means “Chinese reptilian wing” is a compsognathid that was described in 1996, and was the first dinosaur not in the Avialae group to have evidence of feathers
For those who may prefer reading, see below for the full transcript of our interview with Dr. Jim Kirkland:
Sabrina: What does it mean to be a state paleontologist? And what does that entail?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Well, the state of Utah created the position and there are several states that have state paleontologists but in Utah it was basically set up to handle the permitting for qualified researchers who paleontologically search on state lands. It was known, it was started about thirty years ago. I’m the third state paleontologist. The longest reigning, I guess you can call them reigns. Envision, you know, issuing permits, I advise various government agencies about paleo resources in the state of Utah. My office maintains the Utah paleontologically locality database that we use relative to land disturbance issues. You know, if someone’s gonna do something or change the access of some land we comment on what we think it might do relative to Utah’s paleo resources. And I basically serve as a cheerleader for all the fossil records of Utah. You know, we have one of the most continuous and well preserved records of the history of life […] (00:01:19) anywhere on earth. We have more dinosaurs than any state in the union. We have more dinosaurs probably than any country but China. And if I had guild money I could up that. But we also have, you know, an amazing Paleozoic record. We have one of the, we’re just getting ready to publish a book in a week or two on the middle Cambrian faunas of our west desert; they’re world famous. And we have four different levels where we have Burgess-Shale soft body-style preservation. I mean not one level but four different stratigraphic levels in the state to preserve things of that quality you know, with a lot of the same characters you see up in Canada and over in China and most other countries these things are national parks, here it’s just […] (00:02:12). We have a great record of the early part of the age of mammals and snap shots of the rest of the age of mammals.
Sabrina: So you cover a very wide range.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Yeah, the terrestrial rocks, you know, from the Mesozoic and the late period from the Permian up through the tertiary into the recent. You know, we probably have one of the most continuous records of the last two hundred and fifty million years of earth history than any place in the world. It’s pretty exciting. And we really only have a couple of gaps in the entire record. You know, it’s one of those things that we post quite often if you followed me on Facebook or anything I’m regularly updating our dinosaur faunal list. We now recognize twenty seven faunal levels for dinosaurs, you know, and each level has a whole unique menagerie of creatures. I like it, if I were to discover a new one, it would be kind of like sailing into Australia if you were James Cook and discovering this whole new marvel, this world of things that differ in everywhere from the big animals like the kangaroos, down to the small things like the clams and snails, and snakes and lizards and insects, etc. Entire fauna, twenty seven of these […] (00:03:33) Utah. It’s the best dated records of that kind of material practically, on the planet. So in my mind we should be the standard by which at least the northern hemisphere tries to tie in, the […] (00:03:48) the lock step, the history and life in the northern hemisphere.
Sabrina: But you mentioned funding can be an issue sometimes, right?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Yeah. We got into, you know, about half of the funding for the Utah geologic survey is pegged to what we call mineral lease money and the price of oil you know has got, went down last Christmas, it went down by almost half, and that took a huge amount of money out of our budget and unfortunately paleontology is not well funded in this country. In other countries it’s actually proportionally much better funded than the United States and everybody says, well people donate. Well, we’ve been trying to get people donate money for like this Utahraptor project for six months and we just haven’t come up with anything. All kinds of people, oh yeah, yeah, yeah. And then all of a sudden they vanish. You know, it’s been very depressing. Those folks who are working the hardest to try to help us raise the money, cross working projects, you know, they just can’t believe it. They keep talking to companies and things, it looks good and then all of a sudden they’ve changed their minds. Very depressing.
Sabrina: Does that mean the project has to be put on hold until you get funding or how would that work?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: It’s pretty much on hold. I mean, we just gave the pink slip to our micropreparator, Scott Madsen. He’s one of the top five micropreparators probably on the planet. And you know this big block […] (00:05:19) what we’ve been doing in the last few months as we try to open this nine ton block filled with Utahraptors. But I think we’re on maybe the third skull of babies, I mean, we have skulls a couple of inches long, there’s an adult in there, there’s bunches of juveniles. There’s probably yearlings or two year olds, somewhere in there, but fairly small. You know, Velociraptor-sized ones and then you’ve got one big adult. You know, an animal that would have been between eight hundred pounds and a thousand pounds. But the little stuff, Scott’s the only guy in the state really, that’s qualified to prepare […] (00:06:01) done under a microscope and he’s got two more weeks with us and then he’s unemployed and he’s not going to work on this as an unemployed person, so it’s been really depressing. So probably just pull a tarp over the whole thing until the world changes.
Sabrina: That is depressing.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: It really is, I’m sick about it. I just can’t believe that we’ve had such awful luck. I mean I don’t know what the heck it is. I mean Utahraptor’s the star of Jurassic Park; maybe because we’ve pushed that it’s feathered people don’t want to support it. But we’re gonna know so much about the animals’ growth histories as we understand how these things were buried. Yeah we think this is the first site that’s ever been reported to be a mass mortality of dinosaurs tied to quicksand versus, as scientists we refer to as a large scale dewatering feature. But the thing’s on the side of a lake and that’s why the stuff’s so well preserved. Every jaw we’ve seen of every animal including the prey animals, which are iguanodons, […] (00:07:13), have all the teeth and the jaws. You know, so the preservation’s excellent. But probably the water motion within the quicksand, you know, kind of pulled some of the skeletons apart. Some may have been pulled apart by scavenging before the animals got stuck but what’s cool about it is unlike Tarzan movies, you know, where you go in quicksand and you’re sinking away and the last fingers or hands sticking out of it trying to reach for help as it finally sinks. You don’t sink in quicksand completely but you get stuck. And when the water pressure, this churning the sand and shooting it to the surface stops, we call it the hydraulic head, turns down, the entire feature can then collapse into the ground. And we believe that’s what buried these animals while they were still, either still juicy or very soon after.
Sabrina: How many dinosaurs have you, do you know about?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: In the block? Well since we, we always were saying to people that we had one baby, four juveniles and one big adult. Since we’ve just started developing the outside, we haven’t even finished pulling the cap off, we’ve found two more babies and at least one more juvenile so we’re up to eight animals and I expect to be dozens of animals in that block. And that doesn’t count the iguanodon. So you have the eight and then the juvenile and adult iguanodont, maybe it’s the animal named Hippodraco from another site at the same level, it’s a few miles away, or it could be another […] (00:08:59). There seem to be several kinds of iguanodont in that fauna. The others just haven’t been named yet; they’re being worked on by other scientists.
Sabrina: I know it took about ten years to excavate that block.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Yeah. That was mainly because of money, you know. Basically that was totally unfunded and you know we were doing it with like end-of-the-year money. So we work a few weeks here, a few weeks there and then once we realized we couldn’t take it out in small chunks because there was so many intertwined skeletons, there’s just no way to cut the thing without really destroying a lot of really delicate material. The process of trying to block that thing out and figure out how to get it off the […] (00:09:42), you know, Cuesta, that tilted […] (00:09:47) they call a cuesta. Getting it off of that thing involved a lot of engineering and once again the volunteers are always so critical. We had a volunteer, Phil Policelli, who helped design a massive skid, ten by ten and gigantic steel bolts that we built under the thing and placed. And then cross marine projects, they helped work with us to fabricate and actually funded a lot of pulling it off the hill, as did our Utah Friends of Paleontology group. The guys that actually pulled it off the hill, High Desert Excavation in Green River, you know, not too far away, they ended up doing it for cost. And even then they, end up blowing four tires on the semi-truck getting this equipment in close enough so we can get to it. It was quite an endeavor. There was no doubt about it. That little National Geographic film clip gets across kind of neat how it was done. Of course even that thing, film clip, Dirty Jobs, you know, they came out to film a show back there in 2012. That covers some of the early stages, back before we came up with the quicksand hypothesis. I’m on camera saying it might be a levy or point bar accumulation. And we dug and […] that could be the case.
Sabrina: How did you know it was quicksand then?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Basically I’ve dug a lot of dinosaurs over the years. I’ve been doing this now a bit over 41 years and basically bone density, occurrences where you get lots and lots of fossils you generally have a couple of normal geometries that you. Most common that you see is a large sheet where all the skeletons are and the sheet might represent a water hole, marsh or pond that […] (00:11:45). It might represent a big blood deposit where sediment blew out of the side of a channel and buried and sorted and transported a lot of carcasses out on the flood plain. It may be related to ash fall. You know that came down and killed a bunch of animals. So sheet distributions of a lot of skeletons, and we have several sites like that out there. It is common. Another geometry we see is that of a ribbon. Where the animals are either in the river channel bottom, lots of skeletons, that’s kind of like Dinosaur National Monument or Hanksville-Burpee quarries a giant ribbon; big river channel full of skeletons. Sometimes the skeletons are plastered up against a levy or something on the flood plains so they have a fairly linear geometry, a ribbon, […] (00:12:40) as well so it’s not a line. But they’re the most common things. So as we start finding this thing we realized through about a meter, three feet, there were all these skeletons. And we started going laterally and okay it’s ending over here, it seems to be ending over here. Our first on the top where things had been weathered down due to natural exposures we were able to pull out a few chunks and drag them off the mesa, you know, five hundred thousand pound blocks off the top of this thing. Basically we started getting into so many skeletons in such a solid block, you know, we decided lets really try to figure out the geometry.
And it really was 2012 that we really got around it. We had a whole crew of scientists. You know, Dr. Jonah Choiniere from South Africa, Renee Hernandez from the Institute of Geology in Mexico, that’s when Dirty Jobs came out. We probably had a dozen people digging that summer. And we get around it and we realize it’s a big blob. You know, instead of just going into the hill, and I was getting terrified we were gonna have to cut through something eventually and we come around and there’s nothing behind it. You know, here’s this big blob about, you know irregular in shape but, kind of nine feet by nine feet by three feet; three meters by three meters by one meter. But we pulled masses off and to the side and below there’s another mass that was more broken bones that was connected to it by a dike of sand. It was like, what is this? I’m looking at the hill and realize that there are these faults around it so it was just like, what is this? And we ended up going on, I helped lead a trip down to Lake Powell to show some of our Board members some of the research we had been doing down there with the National Park Service and we stopped at an overview spot of height and looking down on the lake, the lake levels are going down, you know, we’re in this major drought and the delta formed by the Colorado River into the lake had really filled in, was right down below us. So looking down on it I realized oh, look at these big sand volcanoes in the delta where, because lake levels are lower, and then you have this giant wedge of mud coming into the lake, as the water drains away this thing is compacting and the water in the grains has to go somewhere and gets pulled up into these pipes pulling a lot of sand up and then this stuff drains back off the delta onto the lakes. So you see these incredible features and I’m realizing you see these big huge depressions where these things have happened and then collapsed down. In some cases they’re near the rivers so they kind of build up a lot of these big huge bowls and wow, that’s what we’ve got. And we’re at the side of a lake, I knew that much, and realizing all the bedding through here is all flat bedded associated with a big lake marsh except for right here. It was surrounded by mud without any bones. We’ve got this sand stuff that’s connected to these sands down below that seem be out of a beach sequence when the lake retreated and then expanded again that’s being pumped up to the surface. This is a big giant dewatering feature and this is what trapped the animals.
You know, we need to talk about Mongolia, you know, Gobi, you get that incredible preservation of the velociraptors and oviraptors and things in the Gobi, and they collapse under sand dunes. They have this saying in the Gobi that I liken with this site, “what buried them is what killed them.” They’re really well preserved. They haven’t been on the surface much to get scavenged and worked on by other animals. Well, that’s pretty much we’re seeing at this site. That’s why all the teeth are in all the jaw – we’re over a dozen jaws now and al the teeth are exactly as they were in life position and all these jaws, down to the babies with teeth that are only a couple millimeters long to the adults where the teeth are a couple of inches long. It’s extraordinarily. The dental battery of one of these big iguanodont jaws, it’s just the perfect grinding surface. And we just don’t see that to see them out very often. A lot of our bone bits are sites where the animals were laying around for a while and teeth are falling out of the jaws and things of that sort, There’s been erosion of the bones by insects and roots and things of that sort, there’s been degradation of the bone. Not in this site. Things are, incredibly tiny delicate things are preserved beautifully. It’s pretty exciting because we’re gonna know all the proportions of animals from individual skeletons, which we didn’t have any of that data before. There’s two major Utahraptor sites known; the discovery site where we’ve named the […] (00:17:32) which was one individual but scattered among a lot of Gastonia […] (00:17:39) but it’s only a handful of bones but they’re all from one individual so since the leg bones, skull bones, vertebra, other things, sickle claws, you know, we’re able to define the animal pretty nicely so it’s a valid taxon. Everybody accepts the Utahraptor’s not just a big Deinonychus like Jack Horner […] (00:18:02) it’s just a big Deinonychus and they’re losing out on growth history.
And then there’s another site, Brigham Young University, years before I even got involved with it, started excavating a site just north of Moab, Utah, a site I’d love to see made into a state park because it’s like Dinosaur National Monument, it is loaded with skeletons. But they’re all early Cretaceous animals. Brooks Britt, the scientist from BYU that’s in charge of the project, he’s told me there’s at least eight individuals of Utahraptor represented at the site and dozens and dozens, I think that maybe ten different kinds of dinosaurs. But that’s a bone bed and everything’s scattered so you can’t tell what bone goes to a young animal what goes to an old animal so you can’t get body proportions. They have a number of missing elements that we don’t have from the original type material but they don’t tell us anything about an individual. This new site, we’re gonna be able to look at the growth history, body proportions of babies, juveniles, adults, you know, in some really exciting ways and what were these animals like. I’m really excited about it. But you know, there’ll be publications after I’m dead and gone. It’s like those ranchers […] (00:19:18), it is the Rosetta Stone for Utahraptor. And the reason we would pull a tarp over this thing if we don’t have the right people to work on it is failure, you know, not doing it right is not gonna happen. We cannot have our legacy to this specimen be that we screwed it up because we ran out of money and had to do it on the cheap. I refuse as a professional scientist to let that happen.
Sabrina: You were part of the team that named Utahraptor. How did you come up with the name and how did you decide that you had enough to name this new species?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Basically back in 1990 I was, the end of August, I was headed to, from Grand Junction, Colorado I’d been working on Jurassic site and just weeks earlier discovered the Jurassic ankylosaur. I mean I hadn’t even announced it to anybody. […] (00:20:10) they had spines and plates and things. And we stopped for lunch in Moab, Utah; I finished up fairly quickly. My wife was dealing with our baby daughter Kelsey […] (00:20:25) my wife went over next door to the rock shop to look around and I’m wondering around and I notice on the shelf there were ankylosaur […] (00:20:35). I’m like, Holy cow those are a lot like the ones that we’re finding in Colorado in the Mygatt-Moore quarry. So I go up to the counter, up to the cash register and I ask this guy, hey you’ve got some ankylosaur stuff back there, where’s that from? You know, it wasn’t for sale it was just on display.
He says, “Oh that’s from out in the upper part of the Morrison Formation out north of Arches National Park.” Holy cow, another Jurassic ankylosaur. I’m really, you know, I’m interested in this. He said, “Yeah, we figured a paleontologist at some point would notice this specimen; that’s why we put it on the shelf.” And he said, but did you see the big block? No. And he’s going, on the bottom shelf there’s this big block about oh three, four foot long, maybe a foot and a half across. Half meter across and a meter long. And I realize, I’m looking at it and looking at it trying to figure out what I’m seeing and finally I realize I’m seeing there’s a split along one side, the pelvis, the hip bone, the ilium, this big flat horizontal hip bone of an armored dinosaur, and above it was a sheet of completely fused armor. A […] (00:21:51) shield. And I realized there’s only one kind of animal in the world that’s ever been reported with this kind of a structure and that’s Polacanthus foxii from Southern Britain. Wow this is really, really exciting. And he says well, you know, “I’ll take you out there and show you the site.”
And I was headed to Arizona so I called my boss and they went out there initially to find the site. He brought out another paleontologist that didn’t know geology, totally confused me when his reports of where this thing was. But when I finally got out there and realized that it wasn’t in the Jurassic, it was just above the Jurassic in early Cretaceous rocks. Largely referring to research by Dr. Bob Young who studied these early cretaceous rocks and published a major thing in the 1960s. And when we started digging the site, one day I found a jaw with some big teeth in it. The meat eating dinosaur […] (00:22:50) the front of the upper jaw with teeth, you know, excited, we’ve got a meat eating dinosaur here. That’s not unusual to be mixed in with plant eating animals. And then one day this guy Carl Lamoney yells over at me, “Jim! I think I’ve got a cervical rib.” You know, a little rib in the necks. I’m working on the job. I go, “Okay great.” And another hour or so later he calls me. “Hey Jim, I think you might want to take a look at this.” And I go over and I’m looking at it and all of a sudden I see this groove on the side of it. That’s the front end of a big claw. And I lay my head down on the rock and realize this is a very flat claw. I said, we’re taking, we’re not leaving here until I get that out of the ground today. Because that was our last day in the dig that year. And about another hour or so he uncovered the whole top, got a picture. The very tip of it was missing. You know, the discovery mark, but pretty much completely intact. Big claw, nine inches around on the outer curve. I go up to camp that afternoon, we’ve gotta […] (00:24:02) bringing it back. I’m showing Don Burge this article on the Clover Leaf formation that John Ostrom had sent me, because he was being there, a super guy, helping me out with literature on armored dinosaurs […] (00:24:16) and Cretaceous, and in there, there was a few pictures of a thing called Deinonychus. I said but look at the scale, its claws were twice as big as the clawed Deinonychus. And Don Burge, my partner, named the armored dinosaur Gastonia burgii, Bob Gaston being the guy at the cash register in the rock shop that first took as into the site and Don Burge who helped me dig it for so many years. You know, he’s looking at it and, “Ah the scale’s gotta be wrong, that’s gotta be a Deinonychus and there was a mistake with scale.” And, “Nah, nah. I know that. I’ve seen that thing.” This thing is really big compared to that. So I said well I go to San Diego SVP, I’ll bring a cast of it. Will get it prepped and cast before the meeting.
So a couple of weeks later, San Diego, this would have been in 1991 the fall. Don, as soon as I walked in to my hotel, Don hands me this resin cast claw. Put it in my pocket, […] (00:25:18) and over the ice breaker, sitting on the back door of the hotel where the ice breaker was, was Bob Bakker. You might’ve heard of Bob. Bob is the wild man of the hot blood dinosaur revolution. A student of Jon Ostrom’s, […] his best friend let us say. And I hand it to him and I’ve known Bob for years at that point and he’s looking at it and twirling his mustache. You know, I’ll be polite sitting around him looking up at Bob looking at this claw. And then he hands it back to me and goes, “ah it’s a piece of junk. Crushed Torvosaurus claw.” No, no, you know. It’s like my stomach… Nah, I don’t believe Bob. It’s a giant […] (00:26:01). Nah it’s just a crushed Torvosaurus claw. And I have to admit, in lateral view it’s like exactly the same size and shape as the thumb claw of a Torvosaurus from the Jurassic. So you, if you’re saying okay it’s flattened but, that’s a reasonable guess, you know Bob’s not a dumb guy. But, then I go, I’m gonna go show it to John Ostrom. He’s like ahhh. He doesn’t know what’s going on. So I go in and hand this to John Ostrom who was actually taking with the first state paleontologist of Utah, Jim Madsen. And John looks at this thing and immediately says, “If this had the sheath on it would be over a foot long. And this thing would rip your guts out.” And he just starts waving it around and totally, you know, and I didn’t have to even prompt him. He knew what it was, the giant raptor claw. So that was, the rest of that meeting felt a lot better for me.
But and slowly as we worked that site we found another premaxilla without teeth in it, tibia – a complete tibia, a partial tibia, tail flatten, tail vertebra that have the long extensions, they’re classic dromaeosaur. A kind of crushed up dorsal vertebra, another hand claw, a few other skull elements. So we slowly, you know, had enough to define the animal. And […] (00:27:32) Brigham Young University, who I knew Dalton Wells Quarry across the other side of Arches National Park, was about the same age and also had these kind of ankylosaurs in it. They had a drawer, one little drawer unidentified therapod and they opened this and there was more Utahraptor material so I asked Ken Stadtman there if I could borrow that material, just a handful of elements but some real nice specimens and he said sure take them. And I used that material with some of the first materials from the Gaston Quarry to initially name Utahraptor. So it was pretty exciting. Right from the beginning we knew we had a second animal. And the name basically came from the site. The Gaston Quarry was on state land and I was working for a group called Dinamation International Society, which was a non-profit group. It had just been founded a couple of years earlier of the Dinamation International Corporation that did the big robot dinosaur exhibits back down in the late 80s and early 90s. Well, the second state paleontologist of Utah was no fan of commercial paleontology and he considered the fact that I had links to a corporation to be evil incarnate so he does not want me working in the state of Utah. This is one reason I linked up with Don Burge from the Prehistoric Museum in Price Utah. He was the director of the Museum at the time so he could get the permit because Dave wouldn’t issue me a permit to work on the site. You know, I secured the specimens and everything, got it back into public hands, I did not see eye to eye on any of that stuff. You know, I always had worked with museums. But there’s other ways to skin cats; I’ve always believed that. So working with Don Burge, knowing that Utah was looking very askance at me because I was living in Colorado just over the border. Across the Red Rock Curtain but over the border in Grand Junction.
Bob Bakker who was a consultant with Dinamation said, “you might want to name that after Utah.” And just like perfect, Utahraptor. It just came right to mind. “Yeah, that will make them like me better.” And Bob’s going, “and you should name it after Spielberg.” I went to this, I had a cast of the claw when we were in California at Dinamation, went to a dinosaur club meeting in Hollywood, actually Burbank, bunch of actors and special effects people who like dinosaurs go to this thing once a month, kind of a potluck get together. And pull out the claw, pass it around and this guy passes this other cast around. Says that’s the claw from the Utahraptor, or the raptor in Jurassic Park. They were making the movie at the time, but you can keep it I’ve got another one. So I was given a cast of the original Utahraptor claw, or raptor claw from the first movie. And I still, it’s sitting right next to me on the desk in my office here.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. And what I like is, you know it’s made with, of course it’s a living animal so it has the sheath, the keratin over the bony core and I’m looking at comparing to mine and I’m like mine’s bigger than this. My raptor’s bigger than Spielberg’s raptor. Not by much, they’re almost the same size but my claw’s much nastier. Much more blade-like, has a much more gentle curve. This thing, they curved it too tight. It wouldn’t be very effective for slashing. Mine would slice you open really good and stab you a foot deep every time it kicked you. Nasty, nasty animal. But I was, at the last minute, the paper was in galley proofs to name the animal Utahraptor Spielbergii and the head of Dinamation comes walking into my office and says, “you’ve gotta change the name”. I’m like, “what?” “You have to change the name.” And I’m like, “what do you mean?” He says, “Well the Universal Studios is suing Yale because they have an exhibit they’re calling Jurassic Jungle.” They’re suing this other museum because they’re calling something Jurassic. Apparently Universal just started suing anybody that used Jurassic as an adjective and I learned later that they were doing it as a prophylactic defense against people that are really ripping them off. So they […] (00:32:04) someone couldn’t say well you didn’t sue them. So they were just having blanket lawsuits but as I mentioned already, in this country, museums have no money. We really don’t. There’s a couple stipends that are moderately well funded but we’re really hurting in the US. So anytime a museum gets sued it’s a big deal. They have to pay for lawyers when they should be paying for paleontologists. So basically I had to change the name, I had to call the printer and have them change the name and that’s how it became Utahraptor ostrommaysorum. For Chris Mays, president of Dinamation who allowed me to do the research and of course John Ostrom who is the father of the […] (00:32:46) and the relation of dinosaurs and birds and started the warm blooded dinosaur revolution.
Sabrina: For Jurassic Park, were they planning on making their Velociraptor that big or was it until Utahraptor came around they were like, all right.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: No, they were already doing it. As I said, this guy handed me this cast of the one from the movie long before I named it or even announced that we had this. This was probably a month or two after I brought the replica claw to San Diego. It would have been like November of ‘91, the movie didn’t come out until ‘93. But they were just working on it. This guy […] (00:33:22) studios and they were building these things up. And you know, Spielberg’s just like, the animal’s supposed to be Deinonychus, still being called Velociraptor, Greg Paul lumping them together a few years earlier. But because of that Deinonychus still isn’t a very big animal. Three and a half, four foot at the head, you know, not very big. And […] (00:33:48) no way the villain of the movie […] (00:33:52) small, you’ve got to make it at least as big as them. So they blew their raptors up to a larger body size and simultaneously when they were making that decision was when we were excavating the […] (00:34:07) and it has been reported to me that Spielberg actually said we had to envision such a creature before the scientists could go out and find it. Okay. The […] was it was a 115 degrees out there and our glue bottles were blowing up in the sun.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Glad you were envisioning for us.
Sabrina: So back to this nine-ton sandstone block, when you do get enough funding to properly study it, what do you hope to find out or what do you think you’ll learn from studying…?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Well there’s a number of questions that they’ll be able to answer for us. One is, you know, and we have to do very careful analysis, we wanted to make 3D models of the thing continuously as we work on it. And we’re preparing the block at Thanksgiving Point, the North American Museum of Ancient Life, in Lehi, Utah. They were the only people that had a lab that we can get it into and therefore strong enough to support the weight of the block. My lab has got a small door, a regular door so I couldn’t get anything this big in my lab. So they were nice, and we have an agreement with them that we can work on the block there. But they’re not funding it. […] (00:35:20) preparing before the public. So anyway, as we work on it we want to make, using photogrammetry, 3D models of the block periodically. And very carefully document what’s going on […] (00:35:33) the fossils. Because we want to decide is it just one of them or is it multiple of them. If it’s one of them, he might have caught a pack of Utahraptors and can actually show that they were […] (00:35:47). If it’s multiple of them then we can establish that. That story is a lot more iffy, if you can […] (00:35:54) to support that. But that’s when you have, […] (00:35:59) animal guessed that the animals would hatch and stick with the parent, so we’re looking at age segregation. It might have been a season, one summer, or one spring. If it’s not one of the multiple events in a fairly short period of time. That will all come out of it. So, you know, make, have evidence […] (00:36:21). How did these things grow? These are babies, these are hatched that year. These are juveniles hatched the year before and maybe there’s other sizes until we get the biggest one. We have that. So maybe by the time they’re three year olds they have to go out on their own. Those kind of behavioral things we hope to pull out of this.
Then we’ll also be able to look at growth history. The younger ones, the juveniles which are, that at this point, more complete just from the fragments that we […] (00:36:49) appear to be much longer legs than adult Utahraptor. Now this has been seen in Tyrannosaur, Allosaurus, a number of […] (00:36:59) animals that the young are more […] (00:37:03) as a result. In fact young animals look like they’re even […] than Velociraptor, about the same size, a little bigger. So we can look at the length proportions and the body proportions, how these things grew and how they behaviors might have changed with age. An adult Utahraptor is a massively built animal and it’s not […] (00:37:26). The ones in Walking with Dinosaurs are completely wrong. Not just that they’re not feathered but also the fact that they’re built like giant Velociraptors. Totally inaccurate. These guys are built like Arnold Schwarzenegger big muscles […] (00:37:44). And they’re kicking through an inch and a half, you know, these guys attacking big animals and they’re built to do it; the big adults. So like with Tyrannosaurus, Allosaurus, perhaps young animals would stir up the prey and make it easier for the big guys to take down the big animal. And these are things we’re gonna look at but it certainly seems that these have different body proportions. But even though I find it unlikely because the premaxilla suggests they’re Utahraptors; they have very distinct premaxilla, it’s not impossible that it’s not a raptor and there’s something else in there. But I kind of doubt it. We’ve got to test it. The theory, testing it rigorously and documenting the process rigorously, that’s how science is done. Failure of doing the science is not an option.
Sabrina: How do feel about Bob Bakker’s Raptor Red novel, if you’ve read it?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: He did some pretty, he was pretty lucky on some stuff. He was writing that, calling me while I was working on Utahraptor. He’d call me, what, “have you found anything else?” You know he was pumping me for information the whole time. Telling me he was working on a novel with T-Rex as protagonist. I had no clue he was doing the book and pumping me for information the whole time. But one of the things that amazes me in that book is he’s got, therizinosaurs up in the mountain playing in the snow. Fur covered, proto-feathered covered, snow bunny therizinosaur. At that time there was not a therizinosaur known in North America. About ten years later, you know a few years later, you know that’s when I discovered the first one, Nothronychus mckinleyi down on the New Mexico Arizona border. And then later we discovered Falcarius utahensis, the real primitive one, in the Cedar Mountain Formation of Utah. I was like, “there was no evidence whatsoever” and he threw it into the book at all. And he’s proven right.
Sabrina: He pulled a Spielberg and envisioned it for you to find.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: I know. Holy cow. Not too shot in the dark. And the fact that these things, you know, because of […] (00:40:01) have been proven to have a fur-like proto-feather coating, oh what do you say. But he made a lot of money off of that, no doubt about it, off my sweat. As has numerous, there’s been lots of books on Utahraptor over the years. Not a penny, toys and things, not a penny has ever gone to research on it.
Sabrina: Have you written any books other than the Star Trek novel, which I want to get into.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: You know why. I didn’t […] (00:40:36) in that Dinamation wasn’t going to let me write a book unless they made all the money. Like the Star Trek novel, I didn’t get any money at all from that. I was able to convince then to let it go to research so it funded my research on the armored dinosaurs which was very important in my education. I travelled all over the country studying Ankylosaurs […] (00:40:58) but here I am, I was told I couldn’t do it. And then when I got to Utah it was pretty much the same thing. Oh you can’t work on a book unless you publish it through us. Which would be write a book and have it sold only in our bookstore. You know, there’s no point. I was asked to do a Dinosaurs of Utah book early on and one of my first questions, yeah which I totally see as part of this job, it’s excellent, how much money do we have for art? You know, none. How do I write a book about dinosaurs without illustrations? But I’ve been working on this block we’ve discovered so much, I mean, since I’ve had this job we’ve discovered twenty six new dinosaurs here in Utah.
I mean it’s pretty extraordinary. And there’s all these faunas. I’d love to do a book where we go fauna by fauna by fauna, you know, through the time scale and get an artist or artists to reconstruct these various worlds and do the entire thing. I think that would be a very nice way to do and a very good position […] (00:42:07) but I’m gonna have to wait ‘til I retire. I’ve been outlining the Utahraptor discovery book twenty years so if I die before I retire my wife can get someone to clean it up and publish it. You know, the state of Utah, they just don’t like you moonlighting, you know? They don’t want me spending all my time writing books to fund my work because they want me doing the job which, I work at home, you know. I’ve been working on stuff at home in the last twenty hours but I don’t charge the state for what I do at home. It’s just, but you know, I just described a mammal recently […] (00:42:43) from Spain, did all of that work from home.
Sabrina: Oh, wow.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Because, you know, it’s outside of Utah. I knew they weren’t going to approve it and we did it through the internet. They put up the pictures, I’d look at them and say, “oh you gotta turn it around and take it again.” And we had a person in the Utah friends of Paleo that actually paid a student at the U to crop the pictures to target stuff. Would have taken me a year to do that by myself. And got that thing done in two years. But totally did this on my own time at home.
Sabrina: That’s passion.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Well it’s, I wanted to do this since I was five years old. I’m doing my life’s thing, it just gets so frustrating that that’s how the world looks at it. “We like what you do but you should pay up.”
Sabrina: So you were into paleontology since age five. How did you end up being a paleontologist?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: I grew up in Massachusetts and my dad was on a business trip and came home with the, in 1959 when I was about five, marked set of […] (00:43:46) and by the time I was six, first grade, I was the neighborhood expert on dinosaurs and telling everyone I was going to be a paleontologist. Other than a brief stint, you know I grew up near the ocean, stint of oceanology and marine biology, I stuck to my guns.
Sabrina: Do you have any advice for budding paleontologists or just dinosaur enthusiasts?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Well the big thing is observe the world around you. I mean, the way life works, the way animals interact with each other. The way nature works, what damage a hurricane does to a coast line, what a flood does […] (00:44:27). A herd of wildebeest […] (00:44:29) get trapped. I mean, the present’s the key to the past. Keep your eyes open and pay attention to the world around you. First thing, learn everything. There’s not a thing I learned, didn’t learn in school that I don’t apply to paleontology. People ask me, what do you do the most and as someone who’s pretty dyslexic I have to admit I write more than anything else but it’s like pulling teeth with me. I write three words I have to correct two. But you know, I’m passionate so I just keep plugging along. I get this stuff out. People that edit me I drive them nuts but my ability, we all have different skills though. It may be tied to dyslexia, a lot of paleontologists are dyslexic. I have a pretty awesome 3D memory. I can see part of something and totally see the full object in multiple views. And geology, probably geology for me is the easiest class I took other than paleontology because of that 3D spatial relations aspect of the way my mind works. I’m great in geometry, lousy in algebra. And then you’re thinking […] (00:45:39) into a form, that’s the way my head works. But I’m right. That’s what you do in this world, is you write. You gotta tell people what you do, you gotta write to get money, well you gotta write to apply to get money, and then you gotta write the reports you gotta do. This is where I get jealous on commercial paleontologists because all they have to do is go out and dig it up, clean it up and sell it and they have money to dig up another one. I’ve got a lot more steps in my process.
Sabrina: Have you ever considered going commercial?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Nah. Believe it or not, I admit. […] (00:46:14) the scientific method is everything to me and basically that’s why things need to be in museums. If you’re publishing on it, it needs to be accessible to other scientists. You know, things may be able to loosen up with some of our 3D rendering but even then we need loan material, we have to be able to visit sites. If you can’t test, falsify what someone has said, it’s not science, it’s storytelling. If you’ve got a dinosaur with no context or shoddy context it’s a waste of space you might as well have carved it out of plastic. That’s why it’s so critical. We have animals from Asia that have been stolen from Mongolia and China. We’re not even sure what country they came from and no clue what age they are and that makes the specimens almost useless. Or if they’ve been named, like Minotaurasaurus or […] (00:47:04) they actually become huge problems in the science because we’ve got to figure out what’s going on relative to other specimen. I mean, I’m not against working with commercial, there’s some commercial guys that collect great data, there’s no doubt about it. You don’t want to put everyone into the same box. I’m not a business man, I’m an academic scientist and even the best commercial guys they don’t write this stuff up and the only people that can afford to buy them are a couple of museums that have real resources. I have almost no resources, other than couple of thousand discretionary money here to do all my science with. But I do it, I have volunteers, and I do it on my own time, you ask my wife. When I was grad student I did research and Xeroxed instead of ate. I love PDFs, let me tell you.
Sabrina: And now you’ve been doing this for, you said, 41 years, and you’ve discovered so many dinosaurs, do you have a favorite?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: I love the ankylosaurus. Gastonia, people say what’s your favorite dinosaur I have to say probably Gastonia. That was the first polacanthian ankylosaur that we actually had a pretty decent […] (00:48:16) that were found. There’s at least ten skulls […] (00:48:23) from numerous sites. It’s a major animal from when Utahraptor was around. I love the figuring out of how these things work. Where do all these spikes and spines go on the body? That detective story is pretty exciting. We’ve been finding bunches of new species of armored dinosaurs here in Utah and it’s been a blast. But Utahraptor got me my job as state paleontologist of Utah so I can’t say that was a bad thing. To just have the ability to do what I do, you know, is wonderful. There a lot of people who get their PhDs who are unemployed but there’s also a lot of us who are employed but barely. But nah, it’s a good profession. We’ve got a lot of big thinkers in this profession. I think most of us realize that you’re only right part of the time and it’s up to the next generation to prove that we’re all an idiot. The big thing that I try to tell these guys is be nice about it. We know we’re idiots but be nice about it. But that’s how science works. I mean, it really is. Basically every paper I publish is a target I throw out and the better my science the smaller the target but infallibility is not part of what we do but honest documentation of what we do, that’s what’s critical; so that people can challenge us and take it to the next level.
Sabrina: Just really quick, my last question, I just want to circle back to the Star Trek novel. How did you become involved in that?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Well, you know, when we announced Utahraptor I got a phone call from this woman, and she tracked me down through Discovery Magazine. And immediately, first words out of her mouth before even her name was, “how the heck do you know these guys were pack hunters?” And I’m like, “we don’t know they’re pack hunters.” The evidence suggests that Deinonychus may have been. You know, we got to talking and she goes, “oh you know I’ve written a bunch of Star Trek novels, have you ever read any?” I went, “no.” But sitting around the campfire we came up with a neat plot for a Star Trek novel, and told her this plot outline that I had. And she said, “hey want to do that together?” “Sure.” And we worked on the thing. The big scene where Spock and Kirk are hiding in the jungle below these fighting Alamosaurus and T-Rex, a sauropod being taken out by a tyrannosaurus. Only could happen at the time. Basically I wrote that scene completely word for word myself and I’m pretty proud of it. Seems like a pretty valid set of thought processes for how such an encounter might have occurred. I want an Alamosaurus mounted with a T-Rex here in Utah because we both […] (00:51:11) and we thought […]. The only place in the world where such a pairing occurs is at the […] (00:51:23) in Dallas […] (00:51:22) an Alamosaurus […] (00:51:24). I think it’s the biggest mounted sauropod in the world. The T-Rex is dwarfed by it. It’s pretty impressive. But those encounters were happening in Utah. We have both and Alamosaurus […] (00:51:37) in the […] (00:51:38) formation here in the […] (00:51:40).
Sabrina: That’s cool. So you weren’t a trekkie to start?
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Oh no, I love it. I love Star Trek but […] (00:51:50) and all the movies etcetera that comes done the pipe, but I’m not a fanatic. I’m very much a science fiction guy. In fact, Robert Heinlein’s novel Star Beast, juvenile novel of his, found that on bookshelf when I was maybe in second grade […] (00:52:11) dragon and ah, it looks kind of like a dinosaur so I had to get that and read the thing. That’s what got me reading science fiction was dinosaurs because time and space kind of go full circle.
Sabrina: That’s great. Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Dr. Jim Kirkland: Take care and have a very good day.
Sabrina: Thank you. You too.