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UT Austin scientists discover first-known Jurassic vertebrate fossils in Texas

A mountain range.
Joshua Lively
/
UT Austin
Most of the outcrops of Jurassic rocks in Texas are in the Malone Mountains.

Researchers at UT Austin have discovered fossilized remains of an extinct marine reptile in the Malone Mountains of West Texas. The discovery of the fossils is solid evidence of Jurassic life in the state.

The Jurassic period spans from 145 to 205 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Steve May, a research associate at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, began searching for Jurassic bones in 2015 while reading about the geology of the Malone Mountains. Before this discovery, he said the only record of Jurassic life in Texas were ammonites and snails. Vertebrates, animals with backbones, had not yet been found.

An artist’s interpretation of a Jurassic plesiosaur.
Wikimedia commons
An artist’s interpretation of a Jurassic plesiosaur.

“Forever we thought there was no record of Jurassic vertebrates in Texas,” May said. “Now that gap in terms of Texas paleontological history has been filled at least in part by finally finding some evidence of Jurassic vertebrates in Texas.”

May said these fossils might be the remains of a plesiosaur, a marine reptile. During the Jurassic period, the Malone Mountains of West Texas were underwater. He said the plesiosaur and other marine reptiles probably lived in a shallow embayment known as the Chihuahua Trough.

May studies vertebrate paleontology at UT and says finding Jurassic fossils requires having Jurassic-aged rocks. Due to Texas’ geological surface, finding visible rocks, or outcrops, from this period is difficult.

“So if you don’t have rocks exposed in outcrop, you don’t really have anywhere to look for fossils,” May said.

In a literature review, he learned that previous geologists and paleontologists had found large bone fragments in Jurassic-aged rocks in the Malone Mountains, but no one ever collected or described these remains.

So in 2015, May got together with some colleagues from UT and Southern Methodist University to explore the area and eventually found fossilized remains of a plesiosaur.

“The material we found is pretty limited. It’s just a few bones at this point, and they’re pretty badly weathered and broken, but they’re definite evidence of Jurassic vertebrates,” May said.

Now, he hopes other geoscientists and paleontologists will explore the Malone Mountains to find more fossils to better understand the environment of Texas during the Jurassic period.

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