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New research leads to new name for well-known Nebraska fossil

By Meghan O’Brien

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    LINCOLN, Nebraska (Lincoln Journal Star) — At Morrill Hall, the University of Nebraska State Museum houses many fossils and artifacts that tell the history of the state and region.

Thanks to recent research by a University of Washington doctoral student, one piece of that history — which is on display weaving through one of the museum’s gallery floors — has a new name: Styxosaurus rezaci.

The newly classified species of plesiosaur was studied by Elliott Armour Smith, who uncovered slight differences in the fossil’s skull that differentiated it from other plesiosaur species while working on his master’s thesis at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

“The kind of interesting thing about my paper is it went about sort of testing the evolutionary relationships between some of these different plesiosaurs from western North America,” Smith said. “So, I didn’t really have any connection to Nebraska in a way, but sort of my own exposure and interest to paleontology and my research really brought me there.”

The fossil was discovered between October and November of 1964 on Rezac land in Valparaiso about a half-hour drive north of Lincoln.

“It’s just amazing that it was buried underground,” said David Rezac, who was about 13 years old when the fossil was excavated from his family’s land. “This land was covered by ocean, and who knows what other kind of animals passed through here.”

His grandfather bought a portion of the land in 1908, and bought an expansion — where the plesiosaur fossil would later be found — a few years later, Rezac said. The land was once leased out to an oil company that ultimately decided not to drill, and now operates as a corn, soybean and wheat farm.

The family could have sold the fossil, but instead decided to donate it to the University of Nebraska State History Museum. This, to Smith, is of extreme importance to science.

“That’s the thing that doesn’t always happen in our field; people are tempted to sell a fossil to a private collection and it prevents it from being worked on publicly,” said Smith. “I always thought to tip the cap to folks who decide to donate something where they stand to benefit monetarily.”

In honor of the family’s donation, he named the newfound species of plesiosaur after them.

“It was really the reason I was inspired to give the specific epithet, the part of the species name that sort of gives it a unique nomenclature, that it was named after because I was just so inspired by the fact that this really incredible fossil was donated,” Smith said.

Because his work was on a fossil that is in the floor of Morrill Hall, Smith had to work closely with museum curator and University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor Ross Secord on removing the Plexiglas that protects it from museum guests’ footsteps.

The skull, Smith said, was the most important part of the research into the species. His master’s adviser, Robin O’Keefe, has spent much of his career working on research into plesiosaurs. They discovered the fossil in an abstract book, Smith said, and the excitement to know more about its origin swept him up in “looking at historical fossils through a new critical lens.”

“Immediately it was a priority for me to get out there and I ultimately ended up just driving out there,” Smith said of his road trip to Nebraska. “That’s the other thing about paleo-research, which is great is that it’s kind of low tech. You need to travel, you need to have lodging, some time and a camera. And then it’s a lot of spending time with the fossil and going and making detailed observations of the important features.”

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