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Archive for Sunday, July 21, 2002

of dinosaurs

July 21, 2002

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Imagine a chicken from hell  with sharp teeth, killer claws and a bad attitude.

That should give you a pretty good idea of Bambiraptor feinbergi, a small, meat-eating creature who lived about 75 million years ago and was a cross between a dinosaur and a bird.

This is the creature that is the apple of David Burnham's eye.

Burnham, 48, runs the vertebrate paleontology laboratory at Kansas University's Natural History Museum in Dyche Hall on Jayhawk Boulevard.

Burnham has a master's degree in vertebrate paleontology from the University of New Orleans and is working toward a doctorate at KU.

His mission these days is to organize a Bambiraptor exhibit in September at the museum, showcasing a world-class fossil of the animal, a realistic life-size model and the story of how the bones came to be found and studied.

"This dinosaur will become the encyclopedia of anatomy for small, meat-eating dinosaurs or even all dinosaurs, a reference for things like T. Rex and Velociraptor. It's like the Hope Diamond for dinosaurs," Burnham said. "There is one Bambiraptor skeleton in the world, and KU has it."

Bambiraptor feinbergi  which represents both a new genus and species  honors Ann and Michael Feinberg of Florida, members of a private foundation that has bought Bambiraptor to preserve it for scientific and educational purposes.

Bambiraptor is on loan to Burnham and Leonard Krishtalka, the Natural History Museum's director. The Bambiraptor skeleton, uncovered in Montana, will stay at KU until Burnham finishes his doctorate, and then the private foundation will decide on a permanent home for it.

It is insured for more than $1 million, Burnham said.

Found by family

Bambiraptor got its unusual name from the Italian word for baby  "bambino"  because the animal probably hunted baby dinosaurs. The word "raptor" means hunter, thief or plunderer.

A 95-percent-complete fossilized skeleton of Bambiraptor was found in 1993 on the front range of the Rocky Mountains in northcentral Montana by the Linster family, specifically by Wes Linster, a 13-year-old boy.

The family contacted Burnham, who was living in South Dakota at the time. The Linsters dig for dinosaur fossils as a hobby, and they had previously consulted with Burnham about some of their finds.

Burnham is the principal investigator of Bambiraptor. The Linster family's find is the most complete raptor skeleton ever discovered in America, he said.

The dinosaur, which probably weighed 7 to 8 pounds, lived in the Cretaceous period. It was feathered, had scaly skin like a chicken's feet, probably was warm-blooded and had a high metabolism.

"It was clearly a dinosaur, because it has teeth and claws. But birds and dinosaurs had a common ancestor," Burnham said.

In other words, Bambiraptor  which was probably flightless  was an early version of a bird.

'Rock to raptor'

Since 1994, Burnham has been studying the Bambiraptor and theorizing about what it was like when alive.

"It's been like a marriage  I feel like I'm married to the thing. I've always been excited about dinosaur-bird systematics. I have invested 5,000 hours microscopically preparing its fossil bones," he said.

"It's fun, and it answers a lot of questions about dinosaurs. I'm lucky to be able to do this kind of work. Bambiraptor helped to build my reputation."

Burnham's scientific description of the animal  titled "Remarkable New Birdlike Dinosaur (Theropoda: Maniraptora) from the Upper Cretaceous of Montana"  was published at KU in March 2000.

In the September exhibition at the museum, visitors will see models of Bambiraptor and learn how scientists go through the process of discovery.

They will get to see how the fossils looked when they were first found, view the actual fossilized bones and examine a realistic model of Bambiraptor, complete with tissue and feathers.

In other words, the exhibit will take visitors "from rock to raptor," Burnham said.

"This is a world-famous fossil that's from the United States. It will be a unique opportunity to come and see one of the better raptor fossils in the world, and the real bones will be assembled here."

Is it possible there are more Bambiraptors out there in the soil, waiting to be uncovered?

"Not just scientists can find these fossils. Kids can find these things. Half the T. Rexes in the world were found by families," he said.

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