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New Fossil Find in New Mexico Named After Artist Georgia O'Keeffe

Sketch courtesy of Sterling Nesbitt.

Two leading paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History and who are affiliated with Columbia University have discovered the fossil of a toothless crocodile relative that looks like a six-foot-long, two-legged dinosaur, but is actually a distant cousin of today's alligators and crocodiles.

The new finding is described in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B by Sterling J. Nesbitt, a graduate student enrolled at Columbia University who studies at the American Museum of Natural History and also is affiliated with the Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Mark A. Norell, Curator in the Museum's Division of Paleontology, who is also an adjunct professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia.

They have have named the fossil Effigia okeeffeae.

Effigia means "ghost," referring to the decades that the fossil remained hidden from science. The species name, okeeffeae, honors the artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived near the site in northern New Mexico where the fossil was found.

Scientists say Effigia is a striking example of "convergence," when two lineages evolve the same body plan.

"It is astounding to see so many advanced dinosaur features in an animal so closely related to modern crocodiles, Norell said. Obviously, this group of crocodiles and dinosaurs must have had similar habitats and probably fed in the same way, accounting for the similarities of the limbs and skull."

Other examples of convergence include marsupial mammals related to kangaroos and opossums that evolved into creatures resembling lions and wolves.

The features of Effigia okeeffeae also were unexpected. "It has large eyes, a beak, it walked on two feet and had small hands," Nesbitt said.

Published: Feb 10, 2006
Last modified: Feb 21, 2006