While hunting for fossils with students from Montana State University, in the backwoods of Valley of Fire State Park, Joshua Bonde was surprised by a sudden appearance of bones during a hailstorm that had halted their exploration. “We were hunkered down right on the spot on the edge of this hill, just looking down at the right spot, at the right time, with the right set of eyes,” Bonde said. The fossil, first discovered in 2008 and slowly unearthed over the next decade, would soon become known as Nevadadromeus Schmitti, the first species of dinosaur unique to Nevada. Bonde has mentioned that the significance of such a find was lost both on him and his team at the time of its discovery.
Only when the fossil was moved into their lab, where researchers labored for several years to piece it all together “like a jigsaw puzzle,” did they discover that the fossil carried traits of dinosaurs that lived in North America 20 million years after sediments that were deposited in Valley of Fire. Since their unveiling of Nevadadromeus Schmitti last fall, Bonde and his wife and fellow paleontologist Becky Hall announced last month that their paper describing the dinosaur had been accepted for publication in the Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science. This is a major development as dinosaurs are not seen as official to the scientific community until its name and reason for being defined has been vetted by other scientists through peer review.
Nevadadromeus Schmitti is a thescelosaurus, or as Bonde describes it, “the sheep” of the Cretaceous period, described as a small-statured herbivore which ran on its back legs and possessed both a beak at the front of its mouth and teeth on its cheeks. “The surname ‘dromeus’ means ‘runner’ in Greek,” Bonde said. “That’s kind of the joke is that they were running away from everything else trying to eat them.” The dinosaur’s name comes from two sources: the first being for the Silver State, and the second being for a professor of geology at Montana State University, Jim Schmitt. During his years at the University between 1982 and 1984, Schmitt became interested in the rocks at Valley of Fire, which are the same age as dinosaurs that roamed the earth during the Cretaceous period. Bonde, who obtained his master’s degree from Montana State, recalls Schmitt mentioning that he should keep an eye out for dinosaur fossils while in the Valley of Fire. “I sort of just said, ‘Well, I think there’s probably dinosaur fossils there because the rocks are kind of the right age,’” Schmitt remembers of the conversation. “Being an educator, I kind of say things like that to students a lot, just give them advice or suggest something to them, and then they go run with it on their own.”
Schmitt has called the area around Las Vegas a “geologic wonderland” for geologists to study, it is also uncovered by forests and easy to see and explore. It’s a history that Bonde and Hall are working to educate the community about. The couple co-founded the Nevada Science Center in Henderson, where they teach the community about paleontology and geology through hands-on programming.