Art alumnus honoured to be dinosaur’s namesake

A UWindsor art grad’s work as a paleontology laboratory technician has earned him a little piece of immortality.

Ian Morrison (BFA visual arts 1988) has had a newly-identified species of horned dinosaur named after him: Gryphoceratops morrisoni.

“He seemed like the most appropriate person to name it after,” says David Evans, associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, where Morrison has worked for more than 20 years. “What better person than the one who puzzled it together?”

An expedition from the museum discovered lower right jaw fragments of Gryphoceratops morrisoni in the fossil beds of southern Alberta in 1950; they languished in the corner of a collection drawer until Dr. Evans pulled them out.

“I recognized this little jaw but it was in a bunch of little pieces, too many and too incomplete to put together,” he recalls. “I showed it to my colleague Michael Ryan and we tried to puzzle it together for about six to eight years.”

When they gave up, Evans decided to ask his laboratory technician to give it a try. Minutes later, Morrison had the pieces placed and was back to ask Evans if he wanted the jaw reconstructed and glued.

“Within an hour, Ian had the whole thing together,” says Evans. “It was those pieces that allowed us to notice a bunch of distinctive features of the jaw and clinched the fact that it was very different from what we had before.”

Morrison says he has always been good at putting pieces together, a skill he attributes to his art school education.

“I majored in sculpture at the University of Windsor and the training I received in fabricating three-dimensional objects translates well into the preparation and display of dinosaur bones,” he says. “That day the puzzle turned out to be just as important scientifically as it was interesting to solve.”

Evans says many of the best technicians in his field come from arts backgrounds.

“They are able to picture things in three dimensions and they are perfectionists,” he says. “It takes somebody with the patience, the manual dexterity and the skill to be able to work on these samples.

“Technicians are so important to what we do, and in Ian, we’ve got one of the best.”

Morrison says that having a dinosaur named is a nice sort of pat on the back.

“I’m honoured to have my work for the Royal Ontario Museum acknowledged in such a unique way,” he says. “I’ve done my best to support the ROM’s vertebrate palaeo department, from advancing the curators’ research, to assisting with educational activities, to digging up fossils in Alberta’s badlands. I’m very lucky to work with a great team and I look forward to contributing more.”

About the dinosaur

Gryphoceratops morrisoni lived during the Late Cretaceous period, about 83 million years ago. It had a shorter and deeper jaw than other leptoceratopsids. In reference to the dinosaur’s beaked face, the genus is called “Gryphon” after the mythical Greek figure with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion.

Due to the characters of the mandible and its small size, researchers believe that fully grown, this dinosaur measured less than one-half meter long. To date, this makes it the smallest adult horned dinosaur in North America and one of the smallest adult plant-eating dinosaurs known.

Evans says that small-bodied dinosaurs are poorly represented in the fossil record, which is why fragmentary remains like this constitute a major contribution to the understanding of dinosaur evolution. Research suggests that leptoceratopsids originated in Asia, then radiated to North America and diversified here. The new species is the earliest record of the herbivores on this continent.

Gryphoceratops morrisoni, along with another new leptoceratopsid, is described in a paper Evans co-authored with Ryan, who is curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Contributing authors are Philip Currie of the University of Alberta, Caleb Brown of the University of Toronto; and Don Brinkman of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. The paper, published in Cretaceous Research, is available online.