The days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, but fossils can be found at any time of year. During our Open House on Saturday, Dinosaur Park interpreter James “Max” Bovis found a phalanx (toe bone) from a meat-eating dinosaur. Max found the bone broken into two halves, but fortunately this was a recent break and the pieces fit cleanly back together. After an hour in the lab removing the encrusting ironstone with a dental pick and toothbrush, the bone almost looks brand new. The articulating surfaces, where this element connected to the other bones of the dinosaur’s toe, are particularly well-preserved. While we cannot say precisely which dinosaur this toe bone belonged to, it was definitely a theropod larger than a person but smaller than a school bus.
While recently discovered feathered dinosaurs from China, Canada and elsewhere are some of the surest evidence that birds are living theropods, the connection between dinosaurs and birds has been recognized since the 19th century, largely thanks fossils like our new toe bone. As early as the 1860s, British naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley was making the case that the leg and foot bones of extinct dinosaurs were virtually identical to modern birds in most every detail. From the three-toed feet to the fused tibiotarsus, the skeletal similarities between these two groups pointed to a clear evolutionary relationship.