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SCIENCE MUSEUM: The Drama Behind North Carolina’s Acro Dinosaur Fossil

The extremely rare Acro dinosaur fossil in the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo: NCMNR.

By The Raleigh Telegram

RALEIGH – If you visit the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences this weekend during their 24 hour re-opening gala, there are plenty of new exhibits to view, but you will still be able to see a giant towering creature that has delighted museum visitors for years.

The actual fossilized remains of the Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur from over 100 million years ago stand tall in one of the exhibit halls, towering above almost everything else in the museum.

Believed to have been native to North Carolina and called the “Terror of the South,” the dinosaur species have served as a symbol of sorts for the museum, even appearing in logos and as the namesake of a former restaurant on the top floor. Of course, when schoolkids visit the museum, it’s one of the more popular exhibits since kids and dinosaurs go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The dinosaur is not as well known as the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but that’s partially due to the lack of Acrocanthosaurus fossils found. To date, only four fossils have been found and the fossil located in the NC Natural Sciences Museum is the most complete and the only one with an intact skull.

The creature was a stunningly effective predator that is somewhat shrouded in mystery due to the lack of fossil evidence.

As interesting as the actual creature, the story behind the museum’s fossil of Acrocanthosaurus is even more interesting. The story behind the fossil is full of intrigue and drama, as amateur fossil hunters took four years to dig it up and then faced a court battle before a mysterious donor gave millions of dollars to the museum to purchase the set of fossils for display.

Author Russell Ferrell has penned a book about the backstory behind the museum’s star exhibit entitled “Acrocanthosaurus : Bones of Contention.”

“In my book I have written the true story of how this dinosaur was discovered, excavated, and ultimately ended up at the local museum,” says Ferrell. “The book, however, is not just a story about the dinosaur, but the struggles and battles of the two amateurs, Cephis Hall and Sid Love, who recovered the specimen – the only significant articulated skeleton of the Acro ever found.”

We asked Ferrell some questions about the Acrocanthosaurus, how the fossil was found, how the museum ended up with it, and some questions about other dinosaurs of that period. Our questions (in bold) and his answers (in regular text) appear below, along with several locations where you can purchase the book here in the Triangle. ::

Q&A With Russell Ferrell

How Was The Acrocanthosaurus Discovered?

The skeleton of the dinosaur was excavated from a corporate waste-holding pit near the Mountain Fork River in southeastern Oklahoma. The land was owned by Weyerhaeuser, a major timber and building materials company that owned almost a million acres of timberlands in southeastern Oklahoma. The discovery and excavation was made by two rockhounds: Cephis Hall, an Arkansas hillbilly, and Sid Love, a Choctaw Indian. Initially they found a large femur of the dinosaur which piqued their interest and incited them toward further exploration.

After recovering a few pieces, the two amateur paleontologists finally secured permission to dig from Weyerhaeuser’s regional timberlands manager. The corporation did not take their excavation seriously and stated that the company, which did not have a written policy regarding dinosaur excavation (probably because dinosaur remains are never found inside forests), was not interested in their paleontological findings. Weyerhaeuser officials did not think it possible for a couple of amateurs to find and excavate anything important. The corporation thus left them alone and forgot about their project.

Beginning in 1983, the two men continued to dig for almost four years and recovered the remains of a very rare and valuable dinosaur specimen. When the corporation later learned the value of the dinosaur they contested ownership and a legal battle ensued. The two men also had to battle the corporation’s friends in academia and government.

This excavation marked the first time in history when two amateurs successfully excavated a major dinosaur quarry totally independent and without any back-up financial or logistical support from a major university or commercial fossil company. This is also the only significant Acrocanthosaurus skeleton ever found. Until this discovery, only bits and pieces of the “Terror of the South” had been found — not enough to put the puzzle together and construct a cast replica of the animal. The specimen was finished and casted at the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, North Dakota, and sold to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh for $3 million.

How do we know that it lived in North Carolina?

Acrocanthosaurus fossils have been found on the coastal plain from Texas to Maryland so it is a sure bet that it also lived in North Carolina. Professional paleontologists like Dr. Dale Russell of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science are convinced of this. However, many of the places where one might expect to find its bones are now underwater.

“A delta containing sediments with the same age as those of where Acro was found lies buried under the waters of Pamlica and Albemarle sound. It’s the right age, contains evidence of similar environments, and probably also Acro bones, but they are hidden from us.” says Dr. Dale Russell of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh.

What other major dinosaurs lived in North Carolina?

In the American east and southeast, dinosaurs occupied the alluvial plains between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian Mountains to the west. Much of the Mesozoic record is absent in the Appalachian region and along the Atlantic coastal plain. Access to the fauna bearing strata is limited. Generally, dinosaur bones are found only in areas of commercial mining where the appropriate strata can be accessed.

Because of the wet climate and dense vegetation that impedes erosion in the southeast, far fewer dinosaur fossils are found in the southeast than the Western U.S. Major articulated skeletons are rare compared to what is found in the dry, mountainous Western Outback. Fossils in the East continue to be buried deeper under the accumulation of layer upon layer of dead organic matter. This rich layer of sediment and vegetation prevents fossils from leaching out at the surface. There are also fewer outcrops along the southeast coast and over-development of urban areas buries all relics under slabs of concrete.

The Acrocanthosaurus, or “Beast of the Southeast,” as it has been aptly nicknamed, would have been the apex predator during the early Cretaceous Period (125 to 100 mya). Ornithopods like the Tenontosaurus were common and would have been a staple in the Acro’s diet. Raptors like Deinonycus may have been a competitor for the Acro during the early to mid-Cretaceous.

By the late Cretaceous (85-65 mya) the Acro would have been extinct and his crown passed on to raptors and tyrannosaurs like Albertosaurus, a relative of T.rex. Duck-billed dinosaurs like the Hadrosaurus, the Edmontosaurus, and the Hypsibema would have been abundant. Giant sauropods like the Alamosaurus may have migrated into what is now the southeastern U.S. from South America near the end of the late Cretaceous Period.

What was North Carolina like back in that era?

In the early Cretaceous, conditions were hot and muggy with extensive swamplands, thick forests, and dense vegetation. Conifers, ferns, cycads, and gingkos were the dominant plant forms, but flowering plants (angiosperms) had arrived and were evolving and spreading across the continent.

There was a rich diversity of terrestrial animal life: dinosaurs, tiny mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and primitive birds. Oceans and rivers were filled with gigantic predators. Near the close of the early Cretaceous, high browsing sauropods were almost extinct while low-grazing herbivores were rapidly evolving and multiplying in response to the proliferation of flowering plants.

In the early Cretaceous sea levels were high, but by the late Cretaceous sea levels were considerably lower. During periods of heavy volcanic eruptions, such as the late Cretaceous, there was a heavy concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting in global warming.

What do we know about this dinosaur and how it lived?

Before Hall and Love’s discovery, the Acro was known from only a few scattered pieces, namely those found by the famed paleontologists Stovall and Langston in Atoka County, Oklahoma. The two scientists documented the animal’s existence and gave it the fitting name Acrocanthosaurus, which means high-spined lizard. The animal had dorsal spines (or fins) attached to its vertebrae that may have served as an attachment for powerful muscles that gave the animal a suspension-bridge-like balance and aided it in grappling giant sauropods.

The ridge-backed Acro hunted sauropods, the giants of the dinosaurian age and several times larger than an adult Acro. It likely made most of its kills within alluvial flood plains and swamplands.

Although the Acro may have been slightly smaller than a T.rex, it had larger and stronger arms and three wicked claws for seizing prey and slashing and thrashing flesh. The arms of the T.rex were small and puny, and with only two claws that were far less deadly than those of an Acro. The Acro had smaller, but sharper, serrated teeth.

The teeth of T.rex were the mark of a scavenger, rather than a true predator. They were shaped like railroad spikes and designed for crunching bones, rather than tearing apart flesh. The hunting credentials of T.rex are in question by a few noted paleontologists, particularly the highly respected Jack Horner, an advisor to the Jurassic Park movies.

The Acrocanthosaurus was the T.rex of its era. It was equivalent in size and ferocity to T.rex, but likely a better hunter. It was the apex predator of North America during the early Cretaceous Period and may have ruled the continent longer than any other terrestrial predator. T.rex had a rather short reign due to the asteroid impact about 65 million years ago that is reputed to have wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs. The Acro ruled North America some 45 million years before T.rex arrived.

The Acro was related to Allosaurus, the apex predator of North America during the Jurassic Period, and was an evolutionary dead end. It likely went extinct due to changing climate and vegetation patterns. With the spread of flowering plants and the extinction or migration of sauropods, it was brought into direct competition with raptors for the meat market of low-grazing herbivores.

The Acro was prevalent in what is now the American South and Southeast from Texas to Maryland, but may have ranged across the entire span of what is now the continental United States. Fossilized track prints of this dinosaur have been found in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, but only one significant articulated skeleton of the monster has ever been found and the cast of that skeleton and the original bones are on display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Note: The book contains a Chapter titled Acrocanthosaurus Versus T.rex – The Tale of Two Predators. The chapter compares these two North American apex predators.

How did you get the idea for this book?

I explain that in the preface of the book. Basically I learned about Cephis Hall’s story from my son who had visited Hall’s rock shop near Broken Bow, Oklahoma, and became interested in his dinosaur story. He told me about Cephis and the dinosaur, which piqued my interest. We both thought it was a story worth investigating as a book prospect. My son and I spent a weekend interviewing Cephis and became convinced that the story had considerable merit and needed to be told.

We were going to write the story as a father-son team, but my son was too busy with his job as a software engineer so the whole project fell on my shoulders. For over three years I traveled back and forth to southeastern Oklahoma researching and interviewing Cephis and other people. I also spent considerable time reading old newspaper stories about the subject.

Why do you think people find dinosaurs so fascinating?

I will answer this by quoting a few paragraphs from the book.

“Dinosaurs have long provided a fascination for modern humans. They harken back to an enchantment with giant reptilian-like dragons that are couched in mythology, fantasy, heroics, and medieval lore. In both classical and medieval time, the dinosaur bones retrieved loose from the earthen works were considered as dragon bones, and the folklore that accompanied these bones had romanticized the aura of the medieval dragon slayer. The dragon that was slain by the chivalrous knight was, in reality, a dinosaur. Even to this very day, the Chinese consider the mythical bones a sacrament and ground them into medicines and aphrodisiac potions.”

“The Chinese continue to hold a resounding degree of reverence for the bones of dragons and dinosaurs. The bones of such creatures are both precious icons and utilitarian products at the same time. The Chinese have stringent government programs in place to protect all dinosaur fossils found on the lands. It would be almost as much blasphemous as criminal for any irreverent Chinaman to deface or discard these sacrosanct relics of nature and folklore.”

“Children are especially enamored of dinosaurs, and the mystifying creatures have a captivating hold on their imaginations. The fantastic size and ferocity of these monstrous beasts are conspicuously evident, yet they are safe as a childhood fantasy because they no longer exist as living animals.”

“Dinosaurs are a unique blend of fantasy and reality, and allow children, even adults, to be scared – but at a safe distance. Dinosaurs leave plenty for the human imagination and satisfy a human need for adventurous curiosity. In all their mystique and intrigue, they shed light on man’s place in nature and the universe. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, after the dawning of the Scientific Age as reason replaced mysticism, there has been a movement away from using the supernatural as an explanation for all things mysterious and unapparent. Gradually, the concept of the dinosaur became rooted in empirical science, rather than mythology, religion, or folklore.”

“Dinosaurs also allow children and adults alike to engage in mental time travel into the remote past, while at the same time, providing a transcendent reality by dispelling the pervasive anthropocentric bias that places humans as the measure of all things. Cultures that worship an anthropomorphic god as their deity of preference may wish to isolate the bones as irrelevant relics of an archaic mythology that is far removed from modern orthodox theology. The dinosaurs ruled the earth tens of millions of years before humans arrived on the scene and established their own divinely-inspired rule.”

“For Cephis Hall, the dinosaur represented a more practical proposition, rather than a “divinely enthralled memento” to be worshiped or magical potion to be internalized. Worshiping dinosaurs was one thing; extracting them from the earth, another. Scientific empiricism and faith-based mysticism were irreconcilable to Hall, an ardent champion of “bone-based scientism.” The grinding of bones into medicines or aphrodisiacs had no relevance for him – the right to dig up their remains was the overriding concern. Science was his forte, not mysticism or religion. In Hall’s mind, the bones were so rare and enthralling that they deserved a place of permanence in nature – of hardened solidity that could be possessed by the generations throughout the ages. It was all about tangible intactness, preservation, and display.”

Where can people find your book?

The book can be purchased off my website at www.thebonesofcontention.com or on Amazon.com. In addition, the book can be purchased at a number of North Carolina book stores, including the following stores listed below.

Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh, NC 27607 919-828-1588

North Hills Bookery 4350 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh, NC 27609

Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, Charlotte, NC 28209

Phillips & Lloyd Book Shop, 66 Church Street, Hayesville, NC 28904

Dee Gees Books & Gifts, 508 Evans Street, Morehead City, NC 28557

The Country Bookshop, 140 NW Broad Street, Southern Pines, NC 28387 ::

Article Posted: Friday, April 20th, 2012.

One Response to SCIENCE MUSEUM: The Drama Behind North Carolina’s Acro Dinosaur Fossil

  1. Joe Iacuzzo

    April 20, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    The first museum exhibit my company produced was also the first time that your Acrocanthosaurus was presented in a museum. It was the life-size cast of “Fran”, the original nick-name of the dinosaur. Dr. Dale Russell was invited to give a presentation during the exhibit at the Mesa Southwest Museum (now the Arizona Museum of Natural History.) I will never forget the sight of Dr. Russell when he first saw the dinosaur, literally leaping over the barrier of cycads that surrounded the Acro, his tape measure stretched between his hands, as he gushed about this remarkable specimen. It was only a short time later that he apparently convinced the folks at North Carolina that this was a specimen worth acquiring.