AU professor recalls 1982 discovery of Appalachiousaurs montgomeriensis in central Alabama

·5 min read

It’s July 2, 1982, and the temperatures in central Alabama are heading into the 90s.

Auburn University professor David King is driving  along county highways for a project, stopping to map and sample sediment in the area. He's trying to figure out what the environment looked like when the area was covered with water.

It's a day like many others: King has loaded up his vehicle with plenty of water, ice, and his field tools. He got an early start — he knows it’s going to be hot.

The process after he gets to a bend on Old Pike Road is painstaking.

“I look at the odometer on the car and write how many tenths of a mile these places are from the last road junction,” King said. “I’m marking all these spots, and then I go back and look at them, take a sediment sample and I look for fossils.”

The discovery of Appalachiosaurus

King said he shakes his head just thinking about that day 40 years ago — the odds of discovering a new dinosaur species, the most complete skeleton of a tyrannosaur that had been discovered in the Eastern United States.

He was an assistant professor at Auburn, less than two years in the position, and he had received a grant to do this project.

“At this one outcrop there was just a lot of bones, and pieces of bones,” King said. “There was a small bone that was a foot bone, so I could tell if it was a significant fossil.”

The place he’s talking about used to be a hill but now is a relatively flat spot on the side of the county road. Back in 1982, the highway had just been rebuilt, and the bulldozer had cut through the hill in just the right spot that the bones could be seen peeking out.

This file photo shows the excavation of fossils from the central Alabama location where the later-named Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis was discovered in 1982.
This file photo shows the excavation of fossils from the central Alabama location where the later-named Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis was discovered in 1982.

King admits he was tired by this time. It was 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon, so what he did next was procedural but motivated, in part, by fatigue.

“I buried it,” King said.

The bones of the newly discovered not-yet-recognized-as dinosaur were probably very fragile. He didn't yet know what it was, but he knew it had to be handled with care. Burying it prevents the potential damage of trying to remove it on your own, or whatever may happen down an old county road.

“A few days later, when I did go back, I did take one of the toe bones that was just sort of sitting there,” King said. “I brought that back and, looking at it, it was clear that it was some kind of dinosaur. There were other big creatures that lived at that time — giant seagulls, lizards, or turtles — but nothing would have a toe bone like that. That was a terrestrial toe bone.”

'Jurassic World': Get it, girl! An ode to the T. rex, the true unsung hero of the 'Jurassic World' franchise

On AppleTV+: 'Prehistoric Planet' shows tender side of fearsome predator Tyrannosaurus rex with nuzzles, kisses

King is not a paleontologist. He’s a geologist who considers himself more of a sedimentologist than anything. The sediment around the dinosaur was what geologists call chalk, a soft, fine-grained sediment that makes a nice preservation medium for bones.

'We didn't know exactly what it was'

Chalk forms in the sea, but this dinosaur wasn’t living in the sea. This dinosaur was alive during the Cretaceous Period that began about 145 million years ago. The Appalachiousaurs montgomeriensis, as it was named in 2005, is about 79 million years old, and Earth was in one of its warmest periods to this day. Global sea levels were hundreds of feet higher than they are now. A body of water called the Western Interior Seaway covered most of the Midwest, Great Plains and Central Canada, connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Arctic Ocean.

“Some people refer to this as bloat and float,” King said. “The carcasses fill with gas and decompose, and it maybe caused it to float out to sea sooner than it might have otherwise.”

King took some colleagues with him from the department the next time he went out, and they began to dig. King said it took weeks to get the first set of bones out and almost four years before the Red Mountain Museum (now McWane Science Center) took a bulldozer to cut down the hill and find more.

“Even then, we didn’t know exactly what it was,” King said. “We knew it was a predatory dinosaur, but we didn’t know exactly what kind, so that took a while.”

The skeleton is around 40% complete, with the skull, limbs, a hind foot and pelvic elements recovered after the initial discovery. Paleontologists were able to determine that the Appalachiosaurus was about 23 feet long and had many of the same body features as a Tyrannosaurus Rex — but at half the length. Open sutures between bones of the skull suggest the animal was not yet an adult.

David King, professor of geology at Auburn University, holds a replica of an Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis fossil on June 22 at the Southeastern Montgomery County site where he discovered the animal's remains 40 years ago.
David King, professor of geology at Auburn University, holds a replica of an Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis fossil on June 22 at the Southeastern Montgomery County site where he discovered the animal's remains 40 years ago.

Where to see Appalachiosaurus

The dinosaur wasn’t named until 20 years later, when paleontologists Thomas Carr, Thomas Williamson and David Schwimmer named both the genus and species after studying the bones more carefully. The Appalachiosaurus is now on display at the McWane Science Center, in Birmingham, although only parts of it have been found. The rest of the bones in the display are estimates of what it might have looked like based on similar dinosaurs, which are smaller species distantly related to the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The Tellus Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, also has an Appalachiosaurus fiberglass replica like the one in the McWane Center.

King has a replica of the skull and one of the legs in his office at Auburn. He hopes to be able to have it on display soon.

As the July 2 anniversary approaches, King said he doesn’t have specific plans to celebrate it. “I just wanted to mark [July 2] more for myself, I guess," he said. "I’d love to see a historical marker put out there."

David King, professor of geology at Auburn University, holds a replica of an Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis fossil on June 22 at the Southeastern Montgomery County site where he discovered the animal's remains 40 years ago.
David King, professor of geology at Auburn University, holds a replica of an Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis fossil on June 22 at the Southeastern Montgomery County site where he discovered the animal's remains 40 years ago.

Destini Ambus is a news intern for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can reach her at dambus@gannett.com

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: AU professor recalls 1982 discovery of Appalachiousaurs in Alabama