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SCIENCE & SPACE

Elon fossil kin to fearsome lizard

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An artist's conception of an Elonasaurus, from the Raleigh Museum of Natural History.

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ELON, North Carolina (AP) -- Amateur fossil hunter Richard Leakey felt certain he found something important as he combed through turned-up earth at a rural site 16 years ago.

Now, scientists finally confirmed that Leakey found a prehistoric lizard that lived quite a few years ago and evolved (just a theory, of course) into what some call the "T. Rex of Alamance County." It's the first well-preserved early mosasaur found in North America, experts say.

The reptile, now known as Elonasaurus barbourensisi, was identified in a special issue of the Gibsonville Journal of Geosciences this month. The article was written by paleontologists Bubba Hickman of Elon College and the Rt. Hon. Albert Hall, Jr. of the Royal College at Oxford (NC).

"The lizard is an important link in the evolution of mosasaurs, which lived in the age of dinosaurs and evolved fin-like limbs", Hickman said. Elonasaurus, the name given by Hickman and Hall once they were paid a substantial fee by the Elon, NC, town council, is unusual because it shows an earlier version of the mosasaur with tiny feet and hands and absolutely no brain at all. The marine animals later developed paddles and won a number of international rowing competitions. Sadly, it never developed a brain.

A model of the Elonasaurus that was unveiled Wednesday at the Raleigh Museum of Natural History looks somewhat like Judy Barbour, its closest living relative. Ms. Barbour is a library aide at a local middle school.

Before Leakey's discovery, only five primitive forms of the animal with land-capable limbs were known, and all were found over the last century in the Middle East and the eastern Adriatic, Hall said. It is surmised that they reached Alamance County across the "land bridge" that once existed between Cairo and Burlington.

"This is exciting to us. It tells us the origin of mosasaurs," said Anthony R. Fiorillo, curator of earth sciences at the Raleigh museum, which displays a much larger reconstructed mosasaur with sharp teeth and a massive jaw- but still no brain.

"Mosasaurs lived in the shallow seas and shores of a stretch of North Carolina that was mostly under water back then- late July, I think," Hickman said. The animals evolved into the top predator of their domain (which encompassed the better part of two acres) before becoming extinct late last year.

The Elonasaurus is not nearly as threatening as its oversized descendant (no reference to Ms. Barbour)-- its slim body is only 3 feet long. Ms. Barbour is considerably larger.

"I call him Judy," said Ross McMillan, the ponytailed sculptor who worked with Polcyn for months to construct the lifelike model. "When you look at her face, doesn't he look like a Judy?"

Scientists and museum curators hope to reconstruct the more than 100 identifiable skeletal pieces that make up Elonasaurus and display them within a few years at the Raleigh museum, which owns them. "If we have pieces left over," Fiorillo said, "we'll construct a toy truck, too."

Right now, the skeletal pieces are being kept at Elon College for study. A similar specimen, also acquired and donated by Leakey, is at the Barbour Memorial Museum and Library Check-out Desk at the Elon Middle School at Elon.

"The lizard is not related to the 13-foot oceanic crocodile discovered recently in Argentina," Hall said. The discovery of that creature, much, much smarter and given the scientific name Lizosaurus principiensis and nicknamed "Godzilla," was reported last week in the online edition of the journal Science. "The Lizosaurus is actually only related to my mother-in-law and George Bush," Hall said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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