Sebastian Dalman still plays with dinosaurs — so to speak.
“I’ve been into dinosaurs since I was 6. I never grew up,” he said.
Dalman, 44, a paleontologist and research associate at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, can now claim bragging rights for discovering a new species of dinosaur.
He will formally announce his findings and the name of the newly discovered critter in April at a professional conference in Socorro.
“It feels great,” he said during a recent conversation. “It’s like giving a name to a baby, but this is a whole new type of baby, a very distinct animal.”
Dalman was born and raised in Elblag, Poland. He came to the United States in 1993 and has lived in Albuquerque since 2015.
His discovery began with the examination of fossilized fragments that had been in the museum’s collection since 1997 and ostensibly were thought to be from a torosaurus, a relative of the better-known triceratops.
That didn’t seem quite right to Dalman, who first saw the bits and pieces in 2015. Last year, he participated in two field digs at the McRae Formation site in south-central New Mexico, where the bones were originally uncovered. The team found additional pieces of the animal, including more of the cranium.
“I put them all together, and based on what we now have, I identified it as a new genus and a new species,” he said.
Exactly what led him to that conclusion will be revealed at the April conference.
He did say the newly discovered dinosaur lived at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million to 66 million years ago, and was also a plant-eating relative of triceratops.
Determining what creatures belong to which bits and pieces, as well as their age, is part of the “important work we do here at the museum,” Dalman said. “It gives us a better understanding of our planet’s past, the environment and ecosystems. When I hold these bones, I’m thinking in my head, what did this animal look like, how did it move and behave, what kind of environment did it live in and how did it interact with members of its own kind and with other species?”
To answer these questions, scientists must first carefully excavate the fossils from the ground, often in large chunks of earth that are then encased in a “jacket” of plaster to protect them during transportation.
Once the fossils are safely at the fossil preparation laboratory, in an annex building across the street from the museum, trained volunteers use specialized tools to scrape and chip away at the surrounding dirt and rock to free the fossils.
“It’s a tedious process that can take from several weeks to several years,” depending on the size of the specimen and the size of the jacket in which it is encased, said Tom Williamson, the museum’s curator of paleontology.
There are currently 78,000 catalogued fossil specimens in the museum’s database, most of them from New Mexico, he said. Each year, the museum gets from 500 to 1,000 new specimens, which can be as small as bone chips, or as large as a complete elephant skull. Once catalogued, they are stored in the annex building’s large collection room.
“Some are used for conducting research, some go out on exhibition, and some are used for education,” Williamson said.
Allan Burke, 90, and his wife, Patricia Burke, 88, were among volunteers one recent day who were removing rock debris surrounding a 120-million-year-old reptile fossil. They’ve been volunteering at the museum for more than 17 years.
“We started out doing fieldwork, but you reach a point where those 200-pound jackets are just too big and heavy to be wrestling around anymore, and camping out at night on a foam pad in all kinds of weather just loses its charm,” he said. “So we migrated to this. You get a sense of accomplishment when you find something in the rock that’s worthwhile.”
Patricia Burke got interested in volunteering at the museum “because of my interest in geology,” she said. “But when I discovered what was in the deep past, it was even more fascinating.”
Another lab volunteer, Bill Ortman, 81, has been chipping and scraping for 16 years.
“When they bring in those jackets, it’s like opening a big Christmas present,” he said while working to free the 250-million-year-old fossilized remains of an eocyclotosaurus appetolatus, a middle Triassic aquatic creature.
“It’s incredible when you think about it. If these specimens hadn’t fossilized, we’d never know these creatures were here.”