New Mexico Find: Ancient Reptile Species Lived 212 Million Years Ago


An ancient reptile species discovered in New Mexico has been given the name Vivaron haydeni in honor of a mythical snake and a fame hiker. The Vivaron haydeni lived on earth 212 million years ago.

The extraordinary finding was published by researchers from the Department of Geosciences at the Virginia Tech College of Science in the journal PeerJ.

According to the journal, in 2009, during an excavation in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, Sterling Nesbitt, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, found numerous fossils including jaw bones, pieces of skull, and hip bones.

In 2014, the fossils finally arrived at Virginia Tech where they were studied, and it was revealed that they belonged to an ancient species of reptile.

Emily Lessner, 22, double major in Virginia Tech’s departments of Geosciences and Biological Sciences at the Virginia Tech College of Science, was the undergraduate researcher and lead author of the paper.

Lessner said that she was thrilled to work with Nesbitt, who is now an assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech. Lessner explained that Vivaron haydeni is a rauisuchid, a group of carnivorous archosaurs that lived during the Triassic period. It is the sixth species of rauisuchid ever discovered. She added:

“Vivaron was a carnivorous archosaur – a large set of animals that includes crocodilians and dinosaurs, as mammals include humans and dogs. Vivaron measured 12 to 18 feet long and walked on four legs. Thus far, three jaw bones, other skull fragments, and hip-bones from at least three individuals – two large, one smaller – have been found. Vivaron was noted to share a number of characteristics with Teratosaurus, to which it is believed to be closely related to, particularly features of the maxilla and antorbital fossa.It is also unique among rauisuchids by possessing five aveoli in the premaxilla, similar to the state in early crocodylomorphs but in contrast with other rauisuchids, which only have four alveoli.”

Lessner and Nesbitt also explained the inspiration behind the name of the reptile. It was given the name Vivaron haydeni in honor of a legendary 30-foot-snake that campers and hikers often talk about during campfire at Ghost Ranch and John Hayden, the hiker, who in 2002 first discovered the quarry in which the fossils were located.

Michelle Stocker, a new paleontologist, said that she appreciates the fact that Nesbitt and Stocker gave her the opportunity. She stated:

“It has given me opportunities that simply attending class never has and has opened up doors for my future. I have been able to gain first-hand experience in the field.”

Nesbitt said he is “paying it forward” because he began his career as a paleontologist through independent undergraduate research projects at the University of California Berkeley. He said:

“These experiences are what really made me understand what it is like to think as a scientist and how to take on complex scientific problems one step at a time.”

Nesbitt also praised the student:

“Emily embodies a key characteristic all undergraduate researchers need, bravery. You constantly are in situations that you have never been in, from fieldwork in the middle of a desert to presenting research in front of 200 professionals.”

A National Science Foundation grant made this discovery possible.