The sun was setting in the west as I was getting ready to call it a day. It was a beautiful New Mexico afternoon as we finished our searh for more vertebrate fossils. We had returned to the site where I had found my first Dimetrodon fossils in 2010. This was 2014 and we had a wet monsoon season in central New Mexico.
After a series of heavy thunderstorms had passed through the area, including on that dumped 5 inches of rain, I felt that erosion was on my side. We had found several more pieces of my previuos Dimetrodon and even some nueral spine fragments of a tiny specimen found by by daughter. Then I saw it…a very large vertebra laying exposed on the bare ground. I thought I had found a large Diadectes vertebra, but included in my find were several other bone fragments next to it. I placed these in a bag together and we called it a day. It was an hour later as I had time to look at the fossil that I realized that all the pieces fit together!
This was the moment when a chill passes through you, when you realize what you truly have. Five of the pieces I thought were a rib turned out to be the neural spine of Dimetrodon. It fit perfectly on top of the vertebra. The other pieces also fit and I had a nearly complete vertebra of a new species of Dimetrodon in the Lower Permian Abo Formation. Now we had two species of Dimetrodon living together where only one was thought to exist. And it was a large species, the largest specimen from New Mexico to date. So now we come to the crux of discovery, with this new species we now have many new questions to ask about the Lower Permian and early Dimetrodon evolution. Where did this large Dimetrodon and the small ones live in the Abo flood plain? What was the early evolution that led to two or more species evolving in the Lower Permian? What was their prey? What was their relationship with other predator pelycosaurs of the Lower Permian. This means more field research to find more specimens.
Being a field researcher gives me the opportunity to help fill in these gaps in our knowledge. Every new discovery helps add to our understanding of our world. With every field trip we add more information about the life of these dynamic times. I also find it wonderful that I have the opportunity to research for a museum one of my favorite times in pre-history, the Lower Permian. Dimetrodon was one of my favorite prehistoric animals when I was a kid. To be able to research them today is a kid’s dream come true. The research being conducted today will be studied by younger paleontologist tomorrow.
I was ten when I found my first fossil. I had broke open a rock and inside was a very well preserved brachiopod. I did not know what it was then. I took the fossil to school for show and tell and went around to each desk to show my find. Today when I discover something new the wonder I felt then is still just as strong. That was fifty years ago. I studied every textbook I could find in my school’s library about geology, paleontology, biology and more. I also spent much of my life outdoors exploring everything. The natural world has been my oyster and I love every aspect of it. I encourage our youth to never let your enthusism diminish. When you are my age I hope the wonder of discovering something new will always sparkle in your eyes. This feeling of wonder is what it is to be a field researcher.
Ken L. McKeighen Jr. is a research associate of the New Mexico Musuem of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, NM. He joined the research staff in 2009 when one of his first discoveries was the Scholle Copper mine vertebrate site in the Lower Permian of central New Mexico. Other discoveries include Dimetrodon in the Scholle copper mine; Dimetrodon, 2 species, at the Gallina Well site in central NM.; An upper Triassic vertebrate site in central NM. yeilding a metaposaurid and a phytosaur, and several scattered vertebrate sites in the Lower Permian Abo Formation of central NM. Ken’s currant research appointment extends until 2016 when it will be renewed. Ken has the eye…the ability to recognize bone fossils almost instantly. This ability is rare and many people will see a rock where an amazing fossil is in hand. This also means Ken is not fooled by fossil wannabes. Ken has been studyning fossils for 50 years. His early research was the Paleozoic rocks from the midwest. He explored the Ordivician and Silurian of Indiana and west Ohio extensively. He also explored the lower and upper Carboniferous of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky extensively as well. After moving to New Mexico he added vertebrate paleontology to his studies and now collects vertebrate fossils for the New Mexixo Museum of Natural History. Ken studied geology at Ball State University, Muncie, IN in the early 1980s.