BLACKSBURG — A small cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex was discovered and named by a Virginia Tech paleontologist and a team of collaborators.
Tech professor Sterling Nesbitt described newly named dinosaur Suskityrannus hazelae in a paper he co-wrote with a team of scientists in the journal “Nature Ecology & Evolution,” published Monday.
The carnivorous dinosaur lived in what is present day North America between 90 and 94 million years ago. It weighed between 45 and 90 pounds and was about 3 feet tall at the hip and 9 feet long — making it a fraction the size of its larger, iconic cousin.
But beyond the more than 90 million year journey the fossils took, the dinosaurs have taken a decadeslong journey to being identified.
Two skeletons of the new species were discovered in New Mexico in the late 1990s, one of which was found by a then-16-year-old Nesbitt.
Scientists didn’t know what they had.
“I was always hesitant to say I found something new,” Nesbitt said. “I was being a careful scientist.”
The project took two decades because when Suskityrannus hazelae was discovered, paleontologists didn’t know much about the predators related to Tyrannosaurus rex and they didn’t know what fossils they had, he said.
Since then, numerous discoveries in Asia have revealed more information about the fossil record of the carnivorous tyrannosauroid dinosaur family, which Nesbitt said gave him confidence in identifying the dinosaur.
That carefulness, though, paid off in the paper describing it.
The name Suskityrannus comes from the Zuni Native American term “Suski,” which means coyote and tyrannus meaning king. The coyote moniker was the nickname the scientists gave it before they knew its identity. The Hazelae name is derived from the first name of co-author Douglas Wolfe’s wife Hazel Wolfe, who has been involved in many digs in the Zuni Basin.
The discovery of the carnivorous dinosaurs’ partial skeletons have framed Nesbitt’s career as a paleontologist, he said. After finding the second skeleton himself, he’s always had it in the back of his mind as he works toward making more discoveries about life millions of years ago.
Then-16-year-old Nesbitt found the fossils as part of a team conducting a dig at the Zuni Basin in western New Mexico. Paleontologists have found many fossils in the area.
The bones of the partial skeleton sat in the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, Arizona — Nesbitt’s hometown — from 1998 until 2006. Then Nesbitt brought them with him to his various jobs across the country. They’re now in Blacksburg where the 37-year-old works.
To publish the study is incredibly rewarding, Nesbitt said. First finding the bones of an unidentified carnivorous dinosaur fueled his passion in making more discoveries.
Nesbitt — who recently won a 2019 Virginia Outstanding Faculty “Rising Star” Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia — said he’s always had the question of what the bones are in the back of his mind. The scientist mostly studies the ancestors of dinosaurs, researching their links to dinosaurs, and he’ll devote more time to that work.
“This project is the end of the beginning of my career,” Nesbitt said.
Funding for Nesbitt and his team’s research into the dinosaur came from the Discovery Channel, the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences and the American Museum of Natural History. Additional scientists on the team come from the University of Edinburgh, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, the University of Utah, and several more institutions.