Meet Lori: Wyoming's Newest Dino-Celebrity
At 106 feet long, Jimbo the Supersaurus stretches all the way from one end to the other of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center's main exhibit hall. He's one of the largest and most complete dinosaurs ever discovered. But in 2001, when paleontologists were excavating his massive bones from a quarry in Douglas, Wyoming, they came across something else.
"She was found kind of accidentally, because we were removing overburden from the main Jimbo bone layer. So about 10 centimeters up from that bone layer, she was uncovered," Jessica Lippincott, a paleontologist and the Education Director for the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, said.
At just 3 feet long, the specimen is the smallest dinosaur ever found in Wyoming. In a paper published last week, a team of scientists from Wisconsin, Washington state, the UK and the Wyoming Dinosaur Center officially identified it as Hesperornithoides miessleri. But you can call her Lori, a nickname given in honor of a volunteer who helped find her.
If this is the first you're hearing of Lori, Lippincott says you might be familiar with some of her relatives.
"Probably the most famous would be Velociraptor, just because of 'Jurassic Park' and 'Jurassic World,'" she said.
Like the tiny but vicious antagonists of the 1993 film, Lori had a large, sickle-shaped claw on each of her feet, likely for disemboweling pray. But she wasn't quite as fearsome looking.
"If you picture a chicken and then transform the beak into a toothy snout, that's pretty much what it would've looked like," said Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester in England.
Lomax is part of the team of scientists who spent the last four years coming up with that physical description and figuring out what Lori's life might have been like during the late Jurassic period, about 140 million years ago.
"It would have been running around a wetland environment. And it would have been feasting on all the tiny little animals there from insects to small mammals to lizards and possibly very small dinosaurs," he said.
Because of the family of dinosaurs that Lori belongs to, Lomax and the rest of the team believe she had feathers. That tells us that today's birds might've evolved from ground-dwellers like Lori, as well as from climbing dinosaurs that spent most of their time in trees.
"It shows that, although this animal didn't fly, its decedents presumably would've evolved flight at some point," Lomax said. "And it shows that flight and feathers themselves evolved in several different dinosaurs. It wasn't a straight arrow."
The research team says that Lori fills an evolutionary gap between the Velociraptor and Archaeopteryx, an avian reptile seen as the transitional between dinosaurs and modern birds.
Unlike many of the most famous dinosaur specimens discovered in the state, Lori is staying here in Wyoming and at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. That's a particular point of pride for Bill Wahl, a paleontologist who was there at the dig site when Lori was discovered in 2003.
"Rather than this going to the Smithsonian or the American Museum of Natural History, we'd like to keep it here," Wahl said. "You can now stand at one case [at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center] and look at Archaeopteryx, the Hesperornithoides specimens and Velociraptor. So you're looking at an entire evolutionary process within about 10 or 15 feet."
He hopes that Lori's discovery will prompt universities and museums to look through their collections for specimens that might match, and to keep an eye out for pint-sized fossils while they're digging for dinosaurs. After all, paleontologists discovered Lori by accident while excavating an animal a few hundred times her size.
"We're trying to rebuild little by little a lost world," Wahl said. "Not to make it sound too corny or anything, but it's just getting enough information from small scale pieces of an environment to build a better picture."
If scientists from around the world want to study Lori, they'll have to travel to Thermopolis, where her bones, teeth, and that infamous killing claw are now on permanent display.