By Sarah Meyer, Freedom New Mexico
North of Clovis, in the Tucumcari Basin, dinosaurs roamed a tropical swamp 225 million years ago.
Teresa Allsup, an amateur paleontologist from Clovis, collects the skeletons left behind.
On a recent dig, Allsup’s passion for hunting for dinosaur fossils emerged in a series of “awesomes” and “wows” as she discovered pieces. One of those was a leg bone, likely of a phytosaur. She carefully removed it and later reassembled it at home.
She said she also discovered the skull of a phytosaur last summer and is working to get it ready to move.
“This is what every paleontologist lives for — to find a skull,” she said. “The reason I’m so excited about it is he’s huge.”
The skull is about 3 1/2-feet long.
Alex Hungerbuehler, a professor at Mesalands Community College and curator of the school’s dinosaur museum, said phytosaurs are among the most common vertebrates found in the area from the Triassic era, but finding a complete skull is “not really common.” He estimates that perhaps 10 have been found in Quay County in the past 100 years, with two found in the last five years.
“It’s not something you find every day,” he said.
Allsup signed up for a customized dig with the museum nearly four years ago and has been hooked since.
“It’s amazing how you can live somewhere your whole life and not know a thing about it,” said Allsup, whose mother was an anthropologist. “But her passion was paleontogy. She loved dinosaurs.”
Allsup said she learned where to look for dinosaur fossils through Hungerbuehler’s paleontology classes. She also has volunteered at the museum, where she prepared fossils and “showed a natural talent” for the work, Hungerbuehler said, perhaps attributable to her profession as a dental hygienist.
“You learn about strata,” Allsup said, the layers of rock where the fossils are likely to be found. The Tucumcari Basin contains Triassic era strata overlain by Cretaceous era formations with fossils from 60 million years ago, she said.
Allsup said she searches for fossils on private land, with the owner’s permission. She does not reveal the sites to the public to prevent trespassing and looting.
She said she has found many fossils, including bones, teeth and armor plates of phytosaurs, several of which have been donated to the museum.
Eastern New Mexico University has a phytosaur skull in its collection, which is being prepared for display, according to Robert Pierce, a professor of geology, who periodically teaches a course on dinosaurs.
By far the most prevalent dinosaur fossils in the area, phytosaurs were crocodilian-like animals up to 30 feet long, Pierce said.
“They’re found with some regularity up there,” he said, referring to the San Jon and Tucumcari area. “It’s an exciting batch of rock.”
The serrated, cutting teeth of phytosaurs are key to identifying them, Pierce said. He said some phytosaur fossils show evidence of bite marks and even broken ribs that have healed.
“They were at the top of the food chain,” he said.
Phytosaurs have been found in Utah, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.