WALHALLA, N.D.-Bones found in the Pembina Gorge could belong to an ancient, giant marine reptile that was previously undiscovered.
Paleontologists are closer to identifying skull bones found in mid-August during a public fossil dig near Walhalla, which is about 100 miles northwest of Grand Forks. Over a three-day period, diggers found three "very important" bones that fit into the skull of a mosasaur, said Clint Boyd, a senior paleontologist for the state Geological Survey. Mosasaurs have been found in North Dakota, Boyd said, but this particular skull does not fit into the species previously found in the state.
"Right now, there is only one species of mosasaur that has been recognized in North Dakota, and we know for certain it is not that species," he said of the bones found in the Pembina Gorge. "Whatever it is, it is something new that we haven't seen before in North Dakota at least."
The Pembina Gorge was covered by water 80 million years ago, meaning fossil digs often produce the bones of ancient marine life. Paleontologists digging there have identified squids, sea turtles, fish, birds and lizards.
In recent years, diggers have turned up mosasaur bones like the ones found in August, but the fossils found last month were the first to indicate the Geological Survey was dealing with a different species.
Boyd said the closest living relative to mosasaurs are Komodo dragons, a large lizard found on islands in Indonesia. Komodo dragons can measure in at 10 feet in length and weigh more than 300 pounds.
Mosasaurs could range from a couple of feet to about 50 feet in length. Like the Komodo dragons, mosasaurs would eat almost anything.
"If you think of a Komodo dragon that has moved back to live in the water again, that's pretty much what this animal is," Boyd said. "If you think of the viciousness of a Komodo dragon on land and then give it flippers and make it much, much bigger, it's kind of a terrifying thought."
Through the fossil digs, experts have identified bones that belong to the mosasaur's back and skull. Last year, digs revealed the giant reptile's lower jaw and parts of the upper skull.
In the August dig, about 75 diggers, including a school group, unearthed what Boyd called a key discovery to identifying the creature. The quadrate, a bone that is part of the lower-jaw complex and sits at the back of the skull, is often used to identify mosasaurs.
The find has piqued the interests of paleontologists, he said. There are many unanswered questions, including whether the beast comes from a line of mosasaurs from another area or if it is a new species.
The Geological Survey probably has enough evidence to name the creature, but it could take a couple of years to analyze the bones and make a definitive identification, Boyd said. He expects more bones from the mosasaur are waiting to be dug up in the Pembina Gorge, and another public dig is tentatively scheduled for August. More bones could aid in identification.
For now, the focus is on cleaning the bones to make a determination on the species, Boyd said. With its staff, the Geological Survey has to prioritize what it works on for identification. The bones found last year didn't meet that high-priority level, but the prospect of discovering a new species has pushed the identification of the bones to the forefront, Boyd said.
"The specimen has been kicked up the priority list," he said, adding he hopes to have the bones cleaned by next summer.