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Mississippi dinosaurs: A rare find - and local program - shed light on dinosaurs that roamed nearby

October 31, 2016:

by Jan Swoope

In a summer dominated by dueling candidates, Pokemon Go and headlines from abroad, news that a paleontologist who grew up in Columbus found the first-ever evidence of a horned dinosaur in Mississippi may have been overshadowed. In mid-July, however, George Phillips made the fossil community sit up and take notice with the discovery of a prehistoric tooth in a creek bed near New Albany. Today at 2 p.m., the paleontology curator for the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson will talk about the find at a free Sunday at the Bluff program at Plymouth Bluff Center in Columbus.

Phillips' recent discovery was nothing if not unexpected. He and his colleagues were exploring a geologic area known as the Owl Creek Formation in search of prehistoric crab and mollusk fossils -- not dinosaurs.

"I was wading through the creek bed and there, on top of a gravel bar, in the center of the bar, there it was," Phillips says. With just a few turns of the fossil, he knew he was holding the tooth of a dinosaur, and a plant-eating one at that. After posting a photo of the tooth on social media, Phillips was contacted by a dinosaur specialist in California.

The tooth was confirmed as having belonged to a type of Ceratopsidae -- or horned dinosaur -- and is estimated to be 67 million years old, Phillips says. Not only is it the first horned dinosaur fossil found in Mississippi, it is only the second or third found east of the Mississippi River in North America.

Before the significant discovery, five kinds of dinosaurs had been documented in the state by the Museum of Natural Science and the Mississippi Office of Geology -- duck-billed dinosaurs; tyrannosaurs; the armored nodosaurus; ornithomimosaurs (or ostrich-mimic dinosaurs); and dromaeosaurus (the "raptors").

The find added a sixth type: The herbivorous ceratopsians, which include Triceratops, were characterized by beaked, horned heads and bony frills on the neck.

Mississippi submerged

Most Mississippians are aware that the state spent much of its geologic past largely beneath an inland sea, an arm of the Gulf of Mexico. It extended up the Mississippi River Valley to the southern tip of Illinois. This region is rich in marine fossils. Many have been discovered and documented in and near Columbus, particularly in the area of Plymouth Bluff and the Luxapalila River. But why are remains of land-dwelling dinosaurs occasionally found in what would surely have been an inhospitable environment for them?

"People are right to be puzzled about why we would find dinosaurs in this area," Phillips says. But it is understandable, he continues, if one studies the geologic map of the Cretaceous period: The very northeastern-most corner of Mississippi was not covered with water.

"So you've got a shoreline not too far to the east and north in the northeast corner of the state," Phillips explains. When dinosaurs died near that shoreline, their bones would eventually be scattered along the coast, where tides and rivers feeding into the ocean would take them out to sea. Carcasses, too, would be carried out by storms and scavenged by sharks and other sea creatures before the skeletons separated.

"That's exactly what we find, fossils with shark bites all over them," says Phillips about many petrified remains from the region. "Almost any dinosaur bones bigger than a child's hand have evidence of shark bites."

The dinosaur who once owned the recently-unearthed tooth may well have been washed out from shore, where the bones sank and were eventually covered with deposits, says Dr. Harry Sherman, a longtime advocate of Plymouth Bluff Center. He founded the museum there and has been instrumental in developing the center's trail system. As coordinator of Sunday at the Bluff programs, he invited Phillips to speak today in Columbus.

"Whenever we hear of a good story, we try to get it on our schedule," Sherman says.


Dinosaurs have long intrigued young and old alike, manifesting in the modern era in the film series beginning with "Jurassic Park" in 1993, books, video games, comics and even theme park rides.

"It's amazing; my granddaughter, Harper, will be 5 next month, and she has a book on fossils and can identify the different dinosaurs," says Rufus Ward of Columbus, a dedicated explorer of fossils himself. Ward has donated several discoveries to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. High on Harper's birthday wish list is a doll called Lottie, the fossil hunter.

"I tried to get one for her, and everybody had sold out," Ward continues. Perseverance paid off. Ward finally got the figure that comes with fossil-hunting tools, a rucksack and "fossils," among other items.

"People are very interested in the dinosaur phenomenon," confirms Phillips, and there is more to discover. Time, erosion and land changes continue to reveal more of history's secrets, as they did with the ceratopsian tooth -- a fossil "out of context," washed out of where it had likely been buried for millions of years, the paleontologist says.

The tooth is currently on loan to the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in California for further study, in hopes of identifying what type of horned dinosaur it's from. Plans are for Phillips and the specialist there to co-author a scientific publication on the discovery.

"Dinosaur remains are found by accident, more often than not by people out rock-hounding," Phillips notes. He encourages anyone who discovers items of interest to take photos and contact the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science at 601-576-6000.

"There are things to be found," he says, "and the rest of the dinosaur who owned that tooth may still be out there."



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