Dinosaur Name:   Tenontosaurus dossi
Pronunciation:   (te-NON-tuh-SAWR-us DOSS-eye)
Name Meaning:   Tendon lizard
When it lived:   110 million years ago, Early Cretaceous Period
Location of Dig:   Twin Mountains Formation in Parker County

   In late summer of 1988, Ted Williams and his son Thad ventured about a ranch just west of Weatherford, Texas, where they held a hunting lease. Since Ted was a biology teacher at Millsap High School, exploring a dry creek bed on the property was a typical father-son activity for them. Little did they know they were about to make the discovery of a lifetime.

   As they walked along piles of white limestone rocks, something caught the eye of seven-year-old Thad. It was the stark contrast of chocolate brown petrified bone and two rows of jet black teeth embedded in the creek bank. Young Thad was insistent that he had found a dinosaur, and he quickly pointed his find out to his dad. Ted was not convinced, but he decided to at least get the opinion of an expert.

   First, Ted felt like he needed to inform the landowners, James and Dorothy Doss, so he headed to James’ office. Together, they contacted the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History to see how to go about confirming the find.

   Jim Diffily, the Museum’s curator, listened to Ted’s detailed description of what he had seen. Very interested yet somewhat skeptical, Jim arranged to meet Ted at a park between Fort Worth and Weatherford. At the meeting Ted offered proof of their findings – some of those chocolate brown bones. Seeing them firsthand, Jim knew a trip to the ranch was in order.

   Together, they visited the creek bed, where Jim was excited to see petrified bones embedded in rock formations. Making the discovery even better, the bones were covered with a crust of calcium carbonate so they were beautifully preserved. And Jim felt confident that there were more bones where those came from. It seemed quite likely that a Spring flood had uncovered the specimen, perhaps loosening some bones and washing them farther downstream.

   A trained geologist, Jim had studied extensively the development of the earth’s structure, various types of rocks, and forms of life found as fossils. He recognized that this was an incredible discovery and a great opportunity for the Museum, which had not previously been part of a dinosaur excavation. But before they could begin to unearth the dinosaur remains, Jim knew he needed two things: help from an expert in paleontology, the specific branch of geology that focuses on prehistoric life forms, and permission from the landowners.

   First, Jim contacted Louis Jacobs, Ph.D., an internationally known paleontologist from Southern Methodist University. (That phone call launched an important collaboration that has spanned two decades and expanded to many other joint excavations by SMU and the Museum.) Jacobs and Dale Winkler, PhD., from SMU’s Shuler Museum of Paleontology, helped Jim plan the excavation, beginning by identifying the specimen as an ornithopod, a plant-eating dinosaur that walked tip-toed on its hind feet, and more specifically a Tenontosaurus. They also advised how to excavate the animal.

   Jim then got in touch with James Doss, and they discussed what would be involved in an excavation on the couple’s ranch. Following some discussion, the couple agreed to donate the specimen to the Museum and gave permission to begin the dig.

   The initial step was to measure and lay out a grid system over the area. With the grid in place, the team began surface collection, that is gathering anything of interest lying on the surface of the ground. Some bones were buried deeply in layers of sand and gravel that had to be sifted, much like panning for gold. Often as they dug, pools of water collected or thunderstorms came, adding to the challenge. Also, as it turned out, dinosaur bones had indeed been washed downstream and were found as far as a quarter mile away. Any findings and their locations in the grid had to be recorded.

   Unearthing bones embedded in rock was an entirely different task, but perhaps less tedious than the digging and sifting. Although the teeth were visible, the skull itself had to be excavated. By the time the two-year dig was complete, the team successfully unearthed from the creek bank a skull, which had a broad muzzle like a horse, as well as a hind foot and an ancient turtle shell. In all, parts of three dinosaurs were found.

   The specimen was taken to the Shuler Museum of Paleontology lab on the SMU campus. There, the bones were cleaned, analyzed, and prepared for articulation. The team determined that unlike other tenontosaurs, this specimen had teeth in the front of its mouth. Dale Winkler,  Phil Murry and  Louis Jacobs wrote a species description paper, which was submitted for peer review and accepted for publication. This horse-sized ornithischian herbivore was given the official name Tenontosaurus dossi, the latter part of the name honoring the Doss family who donated the specimen to science.

   After the scientific study of the bones was complete, they were air-freighted to Florida. There preparator Arnie Lewis – who was retired from the National Museum of Natural History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institute – sculpted the missing pieces and made an armature to hold the fossilized skeleton together. This project took two years.

   Then the completed skeleton was shipped by truck to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, where it was assembled. In 1993, the full skeleton was unveiled to the public in the Museum’s newly remodeled geology hall.

   The excavation of the Tenontosaurus dossi was not only an incredible experience for those involved, but it also chartered a whole new path of discovery for the Museum. We are privileged to bring you along.

Photo Album:
View all 36 photos in the album of the Doss Ranch dig. See large scale images and captions of all photos.

 



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