But the Skybalonyx cabinet was genuine, and it lived in an area that was once flooded with life in the Triassic period about 220 million years ago, said Xavier Jenkins, a PhD student at Idaho State University who was credited Skybalonyx’s discovery, to CNN.
“It’s really so surprising that a place like Thunderstorm Ridge took so long to be discovered, and it reveals a hidden diversity of ancient life in the Petrified Forest,” Jenkins said.
Skybalonyx shows that life existed in the park before dinosaurs arrived
Jenkins’ colleague, Virginia Tech graduate student Ben Kligman, literally stumbled into the area they called “Thunderstorm Ridge,” and found the small Skybalonyx fossils. At its prime, the area was probably a “swamp-like” environment with rivers and lakes attracting species of all kinds – including what appears to be the typical tree-dwelling drepanosaur.
The fossils that Jenkins and his trainees found were so small that they had to “screen wash” them, meaning they broke down the rocks with water through metal screens.
They named the species Skybalonyx skapter, which in Greek means “dung-claw-excavator.” That’s appropriate, as its bones were “quite literally found in a deposit of petrified pelvis,” Jenkins said, and its claws were once perfect for digging.
The team’s analysis showed that unlike other drepanosaur species, which all share a large claw on their other finger, the Skybalonyx skater’s claw was much wider than other species. The claws of other known drepanosaur species were much more suitable for climbing and living in trees.
Claws so wide, Jenkins said, are seen today only in digging animals like echidnas or spiny anteaters and moles.
“Skybalonyx shows that prehistoric ecosystems, such as those in Petrified Forest National Park, were much more similar to modern than previously thought, with animals climbing, digging, swimming and flying just like today,” Jenkins said.
The discovery of Skybalonyx also suggests that the Petrified Forest was far more alive and far longer than previous research expeditions suggest, Jenkins said. The park’s swampy past also resembles ecosystems that survive today and host relatives of the drepanosaur.
“These prehistoric ecosystems are not as alien as one once thought, and are … eerily familiar in their composition to the present,” Jenkins said.