BOONE — The Appalachian State geology department is one step away from placing its lifesize aetosaur model in the university Rock Garden outside of Rankin Science South.
The project, which began in early spring of 2016, highlights the discovery of a new species of aetosaur, named Gorgetosuchus pekinensis, by geology professor Andy Heckert. The crocodile relative, known for its spiny and spiky features, is not technically a dinosaur, but it is prehistoric and lived during the times of the earliest known dinosaurs.
The brainchild and geology professor behind the project, Lauren Waterworth, coordinated with Appalachian State’s art department, under the leadership of sculpting professor Travis Donovan, to develop the aetosaur model. The model is nearing completion, and is now only awaiting the final stage of being cast in bronze.
Waterworth said the bronze casting is a waiting game, and that it will cost about $40,000. The geology department is in the process of applying for grants, and plans to host a fundraiser in April.
The first round of funds was spent on materials used to build the aetosaur model, as well as set the stage for its habitat. On March 10, several Triassic rocks, very similar in age and type to those the aetosaur was found in, were placed in the Rock Garden.
The new rocks are from a brick quarry near Gulf, N.C., and were donated by Forterra, the owner of the quarry. They are from the Pekin Formation, which is the stratigraphic unit for which Gorgetosuchus pekinensis is named.
“They are ancient river deposits from when Pangea was rifting apart,” said Heckert. “As Africa and North America tore apart from each other, deep rift valleys formed, and these filled with rocks eroded from the nearby highlands. It was hot, tropical, and there was plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere, so these rocks are called ‘red beds’ because all the iron in them is oxidized and they are red in appearance.”
Heckert said some of the more coarse-grained sandstone is very much like the river deposits the aetosaur was buried in.
“Until today, we had no rocks from the Triassic basins of North Carolina in the Rock Garden, so we had no rocks that were the same age as, and directly told the story of, the aetosaur fossils. It may seem odd to some people, but these rocks, which are approximately 230 million years old, are actually the youngest rocks in the garden right now.”
The new rocks are also the first with trace fossils, such as tracks, trails and burrows. They are different from body fossils, such as shells, bones and teeth that were actually once part of an animal.
“One thing that geology teaches, is that humans are really small, and our time on this planet has been very brief,” said Heckert. “There’s nothing quite like touching a rock that is millions of years old. I’d like to think it a point of pride for people, that these fossils were found and described from their state.”
What is already being referred to on campus as the Rock Garden’s “Aetosaur Habitat,” the project has captured the attention of students and the community alike.
“It’s making use of facilities that we already have, to benefit our students and also the broader community,” said Waterworth. “It’s a project that highlights research by one of our own faculty members, and is a species, that so far, has only been found in North Carolina. To do it here at Appalachian is wonderful.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the modeling process is that it’s a hypothesis. Heckert’s former colleague, Matt Celeskey, is a paleontological artist and exhibit designer from New Mexico, who worked with Heckert to reconstruct the skeleton and possible appearance of the aetosaur.
In a previous interview with Mountain Times, Celeskey said, “We extrapolated the existing fossils and compared them to more completely known relatives to create the first skeletal reconstruction of this animal, and an illustration of how it might have appeared in life.”
Donovan’s sculpture class used the references to create the model, which is about eight feet in length.
To keep up with the progress of the project, visit the App State geology department’s Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/appalachiangeology/.