Scientists have found an unprecedented cache of fossils of weird animals that thrived at a desert oasis some 200 million years ago, providing a snapshot of a place and time that have long been a mystery.
The fossils include the bones of a fanged flying predator and creatures that looked, one scientist says, like tiny crocodiles with a Chihuahua's legs. Small reptiles whose "hands" resemble a mole's lived alongside dinosaurs that scampered on their hind legs.
Researchers suspect that many of the fossils represent entirely new species.
"Probably almost everything we're finding (at the site) is previously unknown to science," says Dan Chure of Dinosaur National Monument, one of the site's co-discoverers. "It's just an amazing paleontological candy shop."
The fossils are "a spectacular find," agrees University of Utah paleontologist Randall Irmis, who isn't involved in the project. "We so rarely get sites that preserve such a variety of different animals from the beginning of the age of dinosaurs."
The animals at the site should help illuminate the period just before the mass extinction that allowed the dinosaurs to take over the Earth, Irmis says. The fossils also illuminate exactly what was living in the vast sand box that filled what is now the western United States, where fossils from the Late Triassic fossils are scarce.