What is enormous, eats plants, lived 105 million years ago, and now bears the name of a retired University professor? The answer is the Abydosaurus mcintoshi—named after John McIntosh, Professor of Physics, Emeritus.
The team of paleontologists that unearthed the sauropod decided to name their discovery after McIntosh for his contributions to the field of paleontology, in particular to the study of sauropods, and for his years of service at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, where the dinosaur was found.
“It’s to honor him, his great life, and all he’s done for paleontology, and for what he’s done for Brigham Young University, too,” said Dr. Brooks Britt, a researcher at Brigham Young University (BYU) and co-author of the new scientific paper on Abydosaurus.
Sauropods were plant-eating dinosaurs with long necks and long tails. They are the largest creatures to have ever roamed the Earth. This new species is closely related to the more famous Brachiosaurus.
According to Britt, the discovery of Abydosaurus is significant because it marks the first time that a complete Cretaceous period sauropod skull has been discovered in the Western Hemisphere.
Because sauropods have such long necks, their heads were small and light by necessity. This meant that their skulls were very fragile and decomposed rapidly after the dinosaur died, leaving behind what Britt calls “headless wonders.” In this case, two complete skulls and two partial skulls were found within meters of each other, an occurrence unheard of in paleontology.
Britt met McIntosh, known as “Jack” by his colleagues, during an expedition for BYU in 1973 when he was 17 years old.
“[Jack] and I, and ‘Dinosaur’ Jim Jensen, who was the big paleontologist of the day, we rode in the cab of a 1968 one-ton truck up through the Cretaceous rocks high in the mountains of Utah,” Britt said. “It was spectacular. Here I was sitting with two of the biggest paleontologists and being able to learn from them.”
Dan Chure, paleontologist and lead author of the new paper, has worked with McIntosh for many years and still keeps in contact with him on a weekly basis. Chure’s first memory of McIntosh was of him working with sauropods.
“It was quite a sight,” Chure said. “He was manhandling these giant bones weighing hundreds of pounds, wrapping his tape measure around them, and yelling out measurements to write down. We immediately became friends.”
McIntosh’s passion for sauropods began when he visited the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh when he was six years old.
“They had two of the best sauropod skeletons in the world—one called Diplodocus and the other called Apatosaurus,” McIntosh said. “Like a lot of kids of that age, I had a lot of fun and pursued it as a hobby.”
McIntosh has taken his hobby very seriously over the years, publishing many papers and books on sauropods. In 1979, he helped prove that scientists had mounted the wrong head on Apatosaurus. He said his finest moment came when he was asked to write the chapter on sauropods for “The Dinosauria,” an encyclopedia of dinosaur research. This secured his place as the world authority on sauropods at the time.
Although McIntosh has certainly left his mark on paleontology, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist by trade. Britt fondly recalls stories McIntosh told about attending lectures by Albert Einstein and flying in a B-29 bomber over Japan. McIntosh came to the University in 1963 to teach physics, and became chair of the department one year later.
“Here is a person who is well regarded in two scientific professions,” Chure said. “One of which involves the largest animals to have ever walked our planet, and the other, the study of the smallest building blocks of our universe.”
After retiring as a Physics professor nearly 20 years ago, McIntosh has focused all of his energy on sauropods. Although he is not currently working on anything, McIntosh said he would like to write a paper about mistakes that he believes the current sauropod phylogenetic tree, a diagram depicting the evolutionary line of sauropods, might contain. He plans to study the Abydosaurus skull closely in hopes of finding evidence to support his suspicions.
“A lot of argument goes on as to exactly how you would draw [the phylogenetic tree] properly,” he said. “I don’t entirely agree with some of the things that are done here, and if I could do so, I would like to write a paper where I express some of my own ideas as to where mistakes might be.”
Although his passion will always be for sauropods, McIntosh said that if he had to be a dinosaur, he would be something a little more ferocious.
“I’d be a Tyrannosaurus R-r-rex,” said McIntosh, laughing. “Nobody messes with them!”