Spectacular Triassic-Period Fossils Found at Bears Ears National Monument

One of the world’s richest troves of Triassic-period fossils has been discovered in an area of Bears Ears National Monument that just lost its protected status, scientists announced Thursday. President Trump signed a proclamation in December that shrank the national monument by 85 percent.

The discovery of intact remains of crocodile-like animals called phytosaurs came to light this week when researchers announced it at the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists conference at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah. Based on an initial excavation, the 70-yard-long site, its depth yet unknown, “may be the densest area of Triassic period fossils in the nation, maybe the world,” Rob Gay, a contractor at the Museums of Western Colorado, said in a statement.

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In an interview, Gay, who led a team of researchers on last year’s expedition, called it the “largest and most complete bone bed in the state of Utah, and one of, if not the largest, anywhere in the United States.” He called the discovery of three intact toothy, long-snouted fossils from the period extremely rare, adding that the “density of bone is as high or greater than all the other Triassic sites in the country.”

The fossil bed is part of the Chinle Formation, ancient river and flood plain deposits that run through the center of the original monument President Barack Obama designated in December 2016. But that sedimentary rock also contains uranium, which made it more commercially attractive than other parts of Bears Ears.

In December, The Washington Post reported that the firm Energy Fuels Resources lobbied Interior Department officials to shrink the boundaries of the monument, in part to allow the company greater access to areas where it held uranium mining rights. Trump’s Bears Ears proclamation, which took effect Feb. 2, cut more than 1 million acres from its original 1.35-million-acre expanse. A separate proclamation reduced another national monument in Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante, by about 800,000 acres.

Other large Triassic-period fossil discoveries have been made in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, so a find as far north as Utah is significant, Gay said. The Triassic period took place immediately after the first mass extinction on Earth, between 251 million and 199 million years ago, and phytosaurs evolved alongside other species that emerged after roughly 95 percent of the previous species had perished.

Phytosaurs are not considered dinosaurs, Gay said, but “seeing how these animals were able to live in northern parts of the continent might give us some idea of how dinosaurs were able to survive … and take over the world.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin

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