Piece by piece, Vince Schneider is digging and clawing and cutting a way to our having a better understanding of where we came from.
The curator of paleontology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, who’s been involved in that science since 1978, has used rock saws, hand chisels and hammer drills during digs across North Carolina and the United States for more than a decade. Some of his finds are 220 million years old, when mammals evolved. Recently he led a lecture series that was part of “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs” exhibit at the Raleigh museum.
The exhibit continues through April 12. The stars of the show are the long-necked and long-tailed sauropods, some that may have reached 140 feet long. (Details: www.naturalsciences.org)
On Thursday, however, paleontologists from N.C. State and the museum – including Vince Schneider – were in the news with a different beast: The announcement that bones unearthed in Chatham County belonged to a previously unknown prehistoric crocodile. The 9-foot carnivore is being named Carnufex carolinensis – the “Carolina butcher” – and is billed as North America’s top predator before dinosaurs arrived on the continent.
Which gets to a long-asked question: Where are North Carolina’s dinosaurs? Schneider answered that and related questions in a recent interview.
Q. What’s North Carolina’s track record with regard to dinosaur fossils or bones?
A. We have not been able to identify a single dinosaur bone out of the Triassic Period (about 200 million years ago to 250 million years ago). We have found a number of dinosaur bones in the Cretaceous deposits of North Carolina – along the Cape Fear River, down in Bladen County, and some sites in Sampson County. (The Cretaceous Period, known as the heyday for dinosaurs, was roughly 65 million years ago to 145 million years ago.)
Most of these bones are found in deltaic – that’s a large river delta – lag deposits. The river actually concentrated the bones in the bottom sediment, so you get these real heavily fossiliferous sediments.… You’re not getting whole skeletons; you’re getting a bone here and a bone there mixed in with lots of turtle fragments and other animal fragments.
Q. Why are dinosaur remains relatively scarce in North Carolina, as opposed to other places in the country?
A. We do get a number of dinosaur bones … a fair number – 40 to 60 dinosaur bones, decent bones. If you take that in the amount of area that we actually have exposed, which is very, very small … (and compare it to) out west where they’ve got thousands of square miles, yes, they get a lot more bones.
But we have very little exposure here. If you look at the map of Eastern North Carolina and look at the Cretaceous deposits, they’re covering several counties – but it’s all tree-covered. So there’s no erosion going on except on rivers and streams and a few places where man has dug into the ground for a quarry or a farm pond or something.
Q. What kinds of clues do these findings give us about ancient life in North Carolina?
A. That’s always a hard question, but there are some answers. A lot of what we’re getting from this is, first of all, how stable and fragile species are. We can see in the fossil record how, basically, changes in the environment cause the extinction of animals. The same changes today cause the extinction of animals.
We also see lots of evidence of numerous animals throughout time of how changes in climate affect their survival and evolution. I look at Eastern North Carolina the last 35 million years and yes, the ocean has come up. At one time it was up to almost where Raleigh is, then receded, then came back up to where I-95 is, went back down in different places along the coast at different other times.
The only reason we’re paying more attention to things like climate change now is that climate change is happening quicker. We’re looking at a geologic record that’s based on millions of years, and now we’re seeing changes in less than 100 years.
Q. Did dinosaurs living in this region face different challenges with regard to climate and food sources, as opposed to other parts of the world?
A. The hard part there is that we have very little information on East Coast dinosaurs. But we do know a few things. During the Cretaceous, there was an inland sea that actually went up and divided eastern from western North America, so there was no interaction between those western dinosaurs with whatever we had in the eastern part of North America. Also, we had the Appalachians, which were higher at the time. That would have been an obstacle for dinosaurs moving around.
Q. What’s your biggest challenge on digs?
A. Our biggest challenge is being in the right place at the right time. We have to be there when the specimen is exposed. After it’s exposed, it starts to deteriorate – and funding limits the amount of time you can spend in the field. I’m just glad to have to be able to have access and be able to get the material we do get.
Pre-dinosaur ‘Carolina Butcher’ discovered
A newly discovered crocodilian ancestor may have filled one of North America's top predator roles before dinosaurs arrived on the continent. Carnufex carolinensis – the “Carolina Butcher” – was a 9-foot long, land-dwelling crocodylomorph that walked on its hind legs and likely preyed upon smaller inhabitants of N.C. ecosystems such as armored reptiles and early mammals.
Paleontologists from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences – including Vince Schneider – recovered parts of Carnufex’s skull, spine and upper forelimb from the Pekin Formation in Chatham County. Because the skull was preserved in pieces, it was difficult to visualize what the complete skull would have looked like in life. The researchers scanned the individual bones with a high-resolution surface scanner, then created a three-dimensional model of the reconstructed skull, using the more complete skulls of close relatives to fill in the missing pieces.
The Pekin Formation contains sediments deposited 231 million years ago in the beginning of the Late Triassic (the Carnian), when what is now North Carolina was a wet, warm equatorial region.
The researchers’ findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports. ncsu.edu