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After months of research and more than his fair share of sleepless nights, Steven Jasinski was ready to draft a new scientific study that would introduce the world to a recently discovered theropod dinosaur related to Velociraptor, which had flourished at the end of the dinosaur age 75 million years ago. All he needed to do now was name the small predator.

Typically, paleontologists name a discovery after a location, a distinct characteristic, a period in which a dinosaur lived, or a friend or colleague. “Among scientists, it’s considered uncouth to name a discovery like this after yourself,” said Jasinski, acting curator of paleontology and geology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Jasinski, 31, branded his discovery Saurornitholestes sullivani, in honor of his mentor, Robert Sullivan, formerly senior curator of paleontology and geology at The State Museum.

While still a student at Penn State University, Jasinski jump-started his passion for paleontology by volunteering under Sullivan. Soon, Jasinski was completing research projects overseen by his mentor. It was that level of support so early in his career that led Jasinski to name his most recent discovery after Sullivan. “I am quite honored and very pleased to have this new dinosaur species named after me,” Sullivan said.

The fossil, part of the dinosaur’s skull, that became Jasinski’s main focus of research throughout most of 2014 was originally unearthed in 1999 by Sullivan in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. “I recognized then that the specimen was Saurornitholestes,” Sullivan said, “but I was unsure at that time whether it represented a new species of this dinosaur.”

Initially, Sullivan’s find attracted the interest of his peers when the well-known paleontologist surmised that the dromaeosaurid he had found in New Mexico was native to Canada. His original interpretation was that the dinosaur had migrated from Canada to New Mexico, Jasinski said.

A few years ago, researchers in Canada decided to take a second look at Sullivan’s fossil. They determined that the dinosaur hailed from a different family of small theropods and that the long-distance migration originally proposed by Sullivan most likely didn’t take place. At that time, Jasinski had been in contact with the Canadian researchers and had already decided to launch his own study into his mentor’s work.

“I suggested to Steven, in light of the new findings, that he reassess the specimen and see if he could find characteristics that would enable us to distinguish it from its predecessor S. langstoni,” Sullivan said. Saurornitholestes sullivani appears to be closely related to S. langstoni, which are found in slightly older rocks in Alberta, Canada.

Soon, Jasinski was busy comparing the original fossil to all other closely related specimens with the goal of identifying characteristics that were truly distinct. The study revealed an enlarged olfactory bulb surface of the brain. This discovery implies the dinosaur had a keen sense of smell, especially when compared to other dromaeosaurids.

The study, published in New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin, determined that the agile and fast dinosaur would have been less than 3 feet tall at its hip and roughly 6 feet in length. “This keen olfaction may have made S.sullivani an intimidating predator as well,” Jasinski said. “Although it was not large, this was not a dinosaur you would want to mess with.”

Jasinski’s discovery proves that dinosaurs are more varied than previously thought. “Rather than just being another bone, we get a relative idea of what they looked like and how they behaved,” he said. “This discovery makes them more real, in many ways.”


Sean Adkins is social media manager for PHMC. Look for his updates at Pennsylvania Trails of History on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.