How A Case of Mistaken Dinosaur Identity Became the Story of A Brand New Dinosaur
By Melissa Walker
“Fossils are windows into past worlds. They tell us stories that would otherwise go untold.”
Kirk Johnson, PhD
Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Dinosaur Fossil Discovered, then Forgotten
In 1878, Professor James H. Kerr of Colorado College discovered a dinosaur skull “in one of the ridges east of the red rocks of the Garden of the Gods.” A few years later, the famous dinosaur collector O.C. Marsh obtained the fossil skull, identified it as a Camptosaurus dinosaur, and shipped it to the Yale Museum in New Haven, Connecticut.
Then, somehow over the decades, knowledge of the 1878 dinosaur discovery became lost to the Colorado Springs community. While the dinosaur fossil safely rested in the Yale Museum, it was forgotten about locally -for over a century.
In 1995, 117 years later, Lenore Fleck and I (then City Park Interpreters at Garden of the Gods) were researching and writing captions for many of the new exhibits for the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center (then under construction) and were trying to find out what kind of dinosaurs may have lived in this area. Local geology information did not have any record of a dinosaur fossil ever being found within the Garden of the Gods.
However, when Lenore and I contacted expert paleontologists Kirk Johnson and Ken Carpenter (then at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science), Ken Carpenter completely surprised us when he said, “I think I have an article in my files about a dinosaur fossil that was found in Garden of the Gods. If I find it, I’ll send it to you.”
Luckily, he found it! The article was written in 1891 and stated: Camptosaurus amplus No. 1887, Yale Museum, consisting of portions of the skull and lower jaw. It was collected…from deposits in the Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. With this specimen was found the following note in Professor O.C. Marsh’s handwriting: “Part of this animal and various Sauropoda bones were taken out by Professor Kerr in 1878.”
This unexpected news set into motion an exciting chain of events. By taxi, subway and jet, Kirk Johnson hand-carried the dinosaur fossil from Yale to Denver so that Ken Carpenter could study the ancient dinosaur skull and make a cast (precise replica) of it. In 1997, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science gave a cast of the Camptosaurus skull to the City of Colorado Springs to be exhibited in the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center. It was a rare gift, with an ancient and a modern story… but its surprise ending was yet to come
Mistaken Identity Realized and a Brand New Dinosaur Species Revealed!
When Ken Carpenter was making the cast of the Camptosaurus fossil in 1997, he noticed several irregularities in the skull’s structure and decided to re-examine the fossil when his schedule permitted. Finally in 2006, Dr. Carpenter and his associate Kathleen Brill completed a thorough re-assessment of the Camptosaurus skull and noted that it differed from other Camptosaurus skulls in several significant ways, such as the narrower snout and mouth, the position of the nasal openings and the bony structures over the eyes.
Also, Dr. Carpenter made microscopic comparisons of the rock matrix clinging on the fossil to the rock formations in the park where the fossil was most likely found. He also researched archival maps and field notes. Dr. Carpenter’s new investigations revealed that the fossil skull was actually found in the lower part of the Dakota Rock Formation, and not the Morrison Formation as originally thought. Therefore, the skull was from a dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceous Era and couldn’t be a Jurassic Era Camptosaurus. Dr. Carpenter determined that he was looking at a brand new species of dinosaur – the only one known to exist in the world!
Dr. Carpenter named the new species Theiophytalia kerri, which means “belonging to the Garden of the Gods” and for James H. Kerr, who first discovered it 130 years ago.
In May 2015, a new exhibit about our Theiophytalia kerri fossil was unveiled at the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center. The ancient fossil is our newest “window into past worlds.” Don’t miss it!
The Garden of the Gods Visitor Center and City Park Staff wish to acknowledge and thank paleontologists Ken Carpenter, PhD, and Kirk Johnson, PhD for their expertise and generous assistance. Without them, the story of our dinosaur fossil would have remained untold.