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Paleontology

'Citizen scientist' discovers huge bed of dinosaur remains in Az

Tucsonan Stan Krzyzanowski has a dinosaur named after him

One chilly morning in the wilds of eastern Arizona a Tucson dinosaur hunter followed a twinkling trail and found a fountainhead of fossils - and evidence of sudden, massive death 230 million years ago.

The remains of an odd assortment of critters will most likely yield evidence of species previously unknown to science.

That kind of thing happens to Stan Krzyzanowski, a wiry, compact and sprightly specimen himself. The 72-year-old native Tucsonan has done everything from arranging flowers to dealing drugs – legal ones, as a pharmaceutical rep.

He loves to look, the trait that led to a Triassic site one paleontologist calls "spectacular."

Krzyzanowski was out in the hills one winter – "you don't have to carry as much water" – and the dew was on the ground. Frozen. The fossils contained porphyritic rock, which retains moisture, and the icy bits were sparkling.

"I picked up one and then another and by the time I got finished picking up these little bones I had about 250 of them," he said. Just on the surface were remnants of about a dozen species.

The intrigue starts with the mystery of why so many unlikely species died together.

"What I think probably happened is a lot of animals were already dead. Something happened, there were dead rotted animals, then a river nearby overflowed its banks and buried them all in mud," said Andy Heckert, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., who earned his Ph.D. partly with research based on what is now called the Krzyzanowski bone bed.

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Though the site probably will yield new species – and Krzyzanowski already has one dinosaur named after him, Krzyzanowskisaurus hunti – its greatest significance may lie elsewhere.

"It's unusual because normally you go out, you find isolated bones or fragments of bones," said Spencer Lucas, curator of paleontology for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque. "What we found here was complete skeletons, or nearly complete." One jawbone points to a fairly small creature – ferretlike, perhaps – with a mouthful of pointy teeth useful for ripping flesh from bone.

That completeness is hard to come by. Often, fossilized bone splinters resemble shards of a smashed vase, and preparers use acupuncture needles to glue them together.

Also unusual: At this site, land animals and aquatic ones are found jumbled together, and even among the land animals the apparent range is large. The Triassic was an age not only of dinosaurs but also archosaurs – "ruling lizards" – and even early mammals.

To qualify as a dinosaur, "You have to be a reptile that walks with an upright stance," said Lucas.

"A bone bed crammed full of skeletons, that could be one catastrophic event," Lucas said. "It's always hard for us to know what killed animals anyway."

Krzyzanowski puts it in the colloquial: "Hell, I don't know why they died."

Though he discovered the bone bed about 10 years ago, it has stayed mostly under wraps, except for low-key references in technical "bulletins."

Now, "Stan is getting more famous by the minute," as media start inquiring about the bone bed, said Lucas. Its precise location is still a secret and those involved are hesitant to describe it in detail, to avoid possible looting.

Krzyzanowski, unlike a lot of fossil hunters, doesn't do that. He always works with permission of the property owner, and under the auspices of a museum.

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It's safe to say what the site looked like then. "It couldn't be more different than what it is today, said Heckert. "I think it would look something like the Congo River basin. You're on the west coast of the supercontinent of Pangea. Right now we're moving away from Africa. If you tried to push the continents back together you end up with us being very near the equator."

The swampy landscape would have been studded with smoking volcanoes.

Heckart, formerly affiliated with the New Mexico museum, has helped prepare "jackets," which allow removal from the field into a museum, where the puzzle pieces can be put together.

It helps that the creatures found have been small.

"The story of early dinosaur evolution is the story of small dinosaurs, said Heckert. "They hadn't hit on the right suite of adaptations to get large."

Although it will take a while to be certain, he says, "There are pretty surely new things to science. Some of the (jaws) don't look like anything we've seen before."

Preparation of jackets involves carefully removing a plug of earth by trenching around it, then carving out the bottom before it is lifted.

"Basically you take as big a block as you can, which you then flip" and cover with burlap and plaster. "If you lose a jacket it's an awful feeling." The site is so rich that although "we will probably lose bones that are in the trench," there is still much to work with, stored at the New Mexico museum.

Krzyzanowski estimates the weight of the jackets at 200 to 1,200 pounds and says 20 have been removed so far. After excavation, the scientists cover the area with earth to disguise the dig.

His interest in the ancient goes back to his childhood: "I grew up in a secondhand store."

His father, who had moved to Arizona due to tuberculosis, proceeded to defy doctors' pronouncements and lived a long life. Because of his disease he couldn't get a job, so he started fixing radios and opened Stan's Swap Shop on Fourth Avenue. The younger Krzyzanowski was born at the Stork's Nest, Tucson's first maternity ward.

He always looked for stuff, "even as a kid."

"I was out hunting javelinas – I'd never killed anything up to that point, and I shot and killed a javelina." He had fired at a herd, then discovered, "What I killed was a piglet, a baby. I said, 'Never again.'

"I started looking around. I hunted for rocks, then I hunted for Indian stuff." Eventually his interest turned to fossils - and his keen eye aided a design career that specialized in providing lush visual backdrops for large interiors.

His contributions to paleontology were acknowledged even before he found the big bone bed.

"I trained myself to look," he said. "Professional paleontologists have asked, 'How can you find so much?'" He tells them, "You're not looking."

"I looked, then afterward they try to figure it out. I don't have that Ph.D. That's what I'm doing: I'm looking, not thinking."

Such private 'eyes' enrich professional scientists, Lucas said.

"That's the thing about paleontology. There are people like Stan who are remarkably good observers. They make huge discoveries.

"I look at someone like Stan and call him a citizen scientist," Lucas said. "He's doing a tremendous service to the science of paleontology.

"He's what some people would call an American original."

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1 comment on this story

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Mar 4, 2010, 6:14 pm
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This is so cool! The kids and I want to go out for a walk now.

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PK Weis/TucsonSentinel.com

Stan Krzyzanowski displays a photo of one of his finds.

Life on Earth

A vast simplification:

  • • 4.5 billion years ago: Earth formed
  • • 3.5 billion years ago: Earth cools, one-cell organisms arise
  • • 2 billion years: More complex organisms, still single-celled
  • • 1 billion: Multicellular life
  • • 540 million years: Slime, jellyfish
  • • 251 million years: Permian-Triassic extinction; many land and marine species lost
  • • 235 million years ago: Small dinosaurs; Triassic begins
  • • 200 million: Triassic-Jurassic extinction; Jurassic period begins; large dinosaurs
  • • 65 million years ago: Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction: end of dinosaurs
  • • 2.5 million years: Earliest ancestors of man