The Current

Is there a dinosaur hiding in your drawer? Meet the man who's found 15 new species

Dozens of new species of dinosaur are being discovered every year, which keeps expert fossil hunters like Steve Brusatte busy.

'Dinosaur rush' as fossils being found in China, Brazil, Argentina — and Alberta

Paleontologist and author of The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World Steve Brusatte says more and more dinosaurs are being discovered every year. (Submitted by Harper Collins Canada)

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Originally published on May 30, 2018 

We're in the middle of a dinosaur rush right now, with a new species being discovered almost every week, according to an expert fossil hunter.

But many aren't being dug out of hillsides or dusted off at archeological sites: they're lying forgotten in museum drawers.

"A big part of our job is studying the collections of museums," said Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh.

"That's how we found one of these new species ... from China," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "It was in a drawer, it had been described very briefly in a Chinese publication many decades ago, there wasn't much known about it.

"But when I opened that drawer, I could see that it was very similar to some dinosaurs from Africa that I had been studying, so that's how the detective process works in these kind of cases."

There were dinosaurs the size of jet planes.-  Steve Brusatte

Brusatte, 34, was the resident paleontologist for the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, and has published a new book called The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of the Lost World. In a career of finding fossils all over the world, he has discovered and named 15 new dinosaur species.

There's something very special about having "something new in your hands, that nobody else has ever seen before," he said.

"Something that's tens or hundreds of millions of years old, that you have a chance to study for the first time and give a name to it."

To Brusatte, dinosaurs are the most incredible creatures that have ever walked the Earth.

"Some of them got as big as Boeing 737 — to me that is an incredulous fact, there were dinosaurs the size of jet planes," he said.

"These weren't statues, they weren't buildings, these were animals. Real, living, breathing, moving animals. They had to hatch from an egg, they had to grow up, they had to find food, they had to raise their young."

The enormity of the creatures meant that the earliest fossil hunters didn't realize what they were looking at.

"Can you imagine being the first person that ever found the skeleton of a brontosaurus?" he pondered.

"The first person who did couldn't fathom what it was, and they thought it must be a whale."

Before answering questions from kids about dinosaurs, paleontologist Steve Brusatte strolled through the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to answer Anna Maria's questions. (Howard Goldenthal)

How to spot a dinosaur 

Previously undocumented dinosaurs are being found in China, Brazil, Argentina, and even here in Canada.

When a fossil is found, the first thing to do is to identify it, Brusatte said.

"Is it a bone, is it a tooth, is it one bone or many bones? Which bones are they?"

Next comes a painstaking comparison to bones that have already been catalogued, to establish if the species is already known — usually by finding unusual features.

"It has this bump on its bones someplace, where no other dinosaur does, or it has a big horn sticking out of its forehead, or it has extra teeth, or it has a big crest on its head, or whatever," he explained.

"Sometimes we find really unusual features on these dinosaurs and that can tell us that we have something new."

Understanding how these animals died is important because it could teach us something about the challenges we face today, Brusatte said.

"Our Earth right now is going through some really profound change — climate change, environmental change," he said, adding that we need to understand which species are vulnerable.

"We want some insight into what might happen in the aftermath of say a big temperature spike," he said.

"The best way to get a really firm handle on those things is to go into the fossil record, and look at what happened when real animals had to deal with these things in the past."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


Written by Padraig Moran. This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.

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