Discovering Dinosaurs

July 11, 2017 by Anonymous

Northland Pioneer College will become the first community college in Arizona to offer an undergraduate paleontology course about dinosaurs in the fall of 2017.

NPC Biology Professor Dr. David Smith and his colleague paleontologist Doug Wolfe will team-teach the new Geology course (GEO 202 – Dinosaurs) on Thursday afternoons, 1 to 3:44 p.m., at the Show Low – White Mountain Campus. This exciting new course will focus on the ecology, physiology and basic scientific methods used in researching dinosaurs and will transfer as a science elective into the paleontology programs at Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona.

Registration is currently underway for the fall semester. Most classes begin the week of August 21. Tuition is $72 per credit hour for the three-credit course.

Learning from instructors Smith and Wolfe, whose findings have been shared at numerous international conferences, including last October’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) conference in Salt Lake City, students will apply biological and paleontology concepts and develop a field notebook outlining the bones, nervous and muscular systems of dinosaurs. Students will also study the origin and evolution of birds, the concept of extinction and basic scientific methods, including dissection of modern-day birds. Many scientists consider modern-day birds as descendants of dinosaurs. Best of all, students will get a chance to explore various local rock formations, “right under our feet,” notes Wolfe.

“With so much geological and paleontological diversity, it is strange that Arizona has so few active paleontologists and educational programs,” adds Wolfe. “I’m excited about NPC’s new course that will hopefully spark additional interest in the field.”

Wolfe’s training in micropaleontology and biostratigraphy led him to the Zuni Basin along the Arizona/New Mexico border. Working as a consultant for the U.S. Geological Survey, he re-dated many of the rock formations in that region, as well as on the Little Colorado Plateau. While exploring the Zuni Basin with a film crew, Wolfe noticed dozens of bone fragments, weathered out by a nasty thunderstorm the previous week. “One fit neatly onto a bone sticking out of the hill,” recalls Wolfe. The site became known as the Haystack Butte Bonebed.

The scientific name given to the discovery was Zuniceratops christopheri – honoring the Zuni tribe and Wolfe’s son Christopher, who was 7 years old at the time, who picked up the first fragment from the horn-core. “We recovered a few hundred bones over several years from that site, mostly Zuniceratops, the oldest ‘horned’ dinosaur in North America, an early ancestor of Triceratops.”

Eventually, Wolfe realized he had bones other than from Zuniceratops that were very similar to Asian Therizinosaurs. After collecting more evidence with Utah State Paleontologist Dr. James Kirkland, the find was named Nothronychus (nahth-ROH-nye-KUSS), the first Therizinosaur found outside of Asia. Nothronychus was believed to be a biped plant-eater standing about 10 – 12 feet high and weighing nearly a ton.

Wolfe and Dr. Smith, who specializes in vertebrate paleontology, have been collaborating on digital imaging of the braincase of both Zuniceratops and Nothronychus. An NPC professor since 2005, Smith presented his research findings on the airspaces in the brain and skull areas and the nervous and muscular systems of the Nothronychus at the October SVP conference. “Our study shows the Nothronychus was very sensitive to very low frequencies, such as those from approaching storm systems, although they probably did not emit sounds in those frequencies,” remarks Smith. Scientists, including Smith, are now starting to focus on the arm structure, with early indications Nothronychus was a possible swimmer.

Wolfe, his wife Hazel and son Christopher operate the White Mountain Dinosaur Exploration Center (WMDEC) in Springerville and routinely partner with university field teams recovering fossils in the region. The WMDEC, open most Thursdays through Saturday, features numerous specimens and exhibits, including a photo of a three-toed track discovered by Wolfe nearly a decade ago recording a pack of smaller carnivorous dinosaurs possibly hunting a larger plant-eater. His research on the tracks, also presented at the October SVP conference, was the subject of a January 5, 2017 USA Today article.

In addition to teaching at NPC, Smith and Wolfe are making plans to explore major dinosaur fossil sites in China, Mongolia and Russia during the summer of 2018, with their findings published in a future textbook by Indiana University Press.

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