When Brian Coffey, a former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student, planned a field trip for an otherwise routine geology honors project in 1995, he had no idea he'd help make what his professor called "the most spectacular and important fossil find in North Carolina history."
Casually scraping his pick along the ground at an undisclosed east-central N.C. site to expose fresh rock, he impaled the ankle bone of a prehistoric creature lying just below the surface of an ancient lake or river bed.
"Brian, who's now a graduate student at Virginia Tech, brought the bone to me and asked if it was anything interesting," said Dr. Joseph G. Carter, professor of geology at UNC-CH. "I was very curious because I'd never seen anything like it in terms of how the bones joined together. We went back to look more carefully the next day and found and removed a lot more material."
Carter and his students have been working on the remains ever since. Other top paleontologists quickly agreed to join the effort.
"About a year after the initial discovery, we started realizing during the cleaning process that we had something really special," the geologist said. "It was like a series of Christmas presents that just kept getting bigger and bigger."
The late-Triassic Period animal turned out to be a new species and probably a new genus of rauisuchian, a 221-million-year-old reptile that was evolutionarily halfway between dinosaurs and crocodiles, Carter said. Its kind died out just after the first dinosaurs appeared.
"Unlike dinosaurs, which walked on their toes, these guys walked
partially upright on their heels and toes like humans do and dominated the world
until the dinosaurs took over," he said. "They dominated the early dinosaurs
too, but then went extinct, possibly because of climate change and a global
catastrophe such as a comet impact. Dinosaurs then got bigger, dominated mammals
and went extinct them
Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill