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Former Mesa museum volunteer documents key dinosaur discovery

A full-scale model of Suskityrannus hazelae is on display at the Arizona Museum of Natural History. (City of Mesa Photo)

PHOENIX – As a teen volunteer with the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, Sterling Nesbitt was part of a team that discovered fossils of a 3-foot-tall early relative of the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex.

Two decades later, Nesbitt is the lead author on a paper about the discovery that was published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The paper details how the dinosaur called Suskityrannus hazelae provided missing clues about how T. rex evolved into the massive predator that ruled the later Cretaceous period.

“My discovery of a partial skeleton of Suskityrannus put me onto a scientific journey that has framed my career,” Nesbitt wrote, according to a city of Mesa press release.

The name means “Hazel’s coyote tyrant,” derived from the Zuni word for coyote, suski, with a nod to field project worker Hazel Wolfe.

Two specimens of the dinosaur were found by Arizona Museum of Natural History crews in the Zuni Basin of western New Mexico between 1996 and 1998.

They dated from 92 million years ago, 27 million years ahead of T. Rex.

“The new species shows that tyrannosaurs developed many of their signature features, like a muscular skull, broad mouth and a shock-absorbing foot, when they were still small, maybe as adaptations for living in the shadows,” Steven Brusatte, a co-author of the paper, wrote, according to the release.

The scientists determined Suskityrannus was about 9 feet long, stood 2-3 feet at the hip and weighed 45-90 pounds. It stood on two legs and had teeth that suggested a carnivorous diet.

By contrast, T. rex is thought to have weighed around 9 tons.

The Arizona Museum of Natural History will permanently house the Suskityrannus fossils.

A full-scale model and reproduced skeleton are on display at the museum at 53 N. Macdonald, a block north of Main Street.

Douglas Wolfe of the museum’s Zuni Basin Paleontological Project called the discovery “a very successful example of collaboration between scientific professionals, students and volunteers working to narrow the ‘Cretaceous dinosaur gap,’” according to the release.

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