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 Real People

Paul Sealy

Paleontologist Paul Sealey and the Bisti Beast

Ribs

Bisti Beast rib bones from Sealey’s find

Ammonites

One of Sealey’s prized ammonites, pulled from storage in the lab of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History

Placitas “fossil hunter” Sealey discovers new dinosaur

—Evan Belknap

Placitas resident Paul Sealey will be featured in the Dinosaur Century Exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, starting May 19, for his 1997 discovery of a partial skeleton and complete skull of a new genus and species of tyrannosaur. Sealey’s find turned out to be one of the most complete tyrannosaurs collected from not only the San Juan Basin, but all of New Mexico. This new species, named Bistahieversor sealeyi—a combination of Greek and Navajo words meaning “Sealey’s destroyer of the badlands,” also known as the “Bisti Beast”—clarifies much of the evolutionary history of tyrannosaurs on the continent for paleontologists. The completed skull is currently on display at the Natural History Museum, but will be more thoroughly illuminated as of May 19.

In an interview with the Signpost, I asked Sealey for the story behind his discovery, how it was possible for one to stumble upon the skull of a tyrannosaur, and how that must be a very exciting moment. He described the process of prospecting thusly: “Well, you’re walking around, knowing what you’re looking for, and finding it… Erosion is what exposes [bones and fossils], but it is also what destroys them. You hope to find them at the right time.” After more pestering, lost somewhere between the Triassic and Cretaceous exhibits at the museum, Sealey admitted that, yes, finding a skull was very exciting.

An excerpt from his book in progress reads:

In 1996 I traveled to northwestern New Mexico to do reconnaissance in the Fruitland and Kirtland Formations. Several famous dinosaur hunters had made important discoveries in these formations… After finding several bones, I was walking up to a nose (a hill that protrudes beyond others) when I noticed bone protruding from the white channel sandstone. When I climbed on top of this nose, I saw many bones including several ribs, a partial limb, and pelvic bones. I sat down to log the find in my field book and take a GPS reading. I was not especially excited, nor did I realize the significance of this find, until I got up to take an inventory of the bones for my notes. As I was inspecting one of the bones, I realized it was a jaw with a tooth still in place. It’s an Albertosaur, I thought! Now the excitement appeared instantaneously.

Excavation of the “Bisti Beast” took two years, with much hard work from New Mexico paleontologists and eventually the New Mexico National Guard, who helicoptered the treasures to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History where the long process of preparation could begin.

Sealey, born in Albuquerque, has been collecting fossils in New Mexico since he was fifteen years old. He graduated from the University of New Mexico with Minor in Geology and a Major in Anthropology, and has since discovered Pennsylvanian plants and brachiopods, Permian trackways and nautiloids, Triassic reptiles and amphibians, Cretaceous dinosaurs, fossilized plants and turtles, ammonites, Paleocene mammals, Eocene mammals, giant tortoise shells, Pleistocene sloth bones, and Miocene and Pliocene elephant, horse and camel bones. He has authored or co-authored over fifty publications and is currently a research associate at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History.

Sealey commented on how the Signpost is always full of artists, and that people should probably know that “some Placitans do something else.” This is a good point, though Sealey is also an award-winning photographer, which somehow discounts his claim and makes us all have to wonder: do they?

The Dinosaur Century Exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History will add new fossils and new stories of New Mexico dinosaur discoveries every month through the end of 2012. For more information, visit www.nmnaturalhistory.org/dinosaurcentury.html.