KENTON — Mark Micozzi wasn't looking for anything in particular while he was digging in the ground near the Black Mesa Nature Preserve last month.
Micozzi, a professor at East Central University in Ada, was part of an excavation project looking for dinosaur bones in the Oklahoma Panhandle. While digging a trench to allow water to drain out of the pit where the crew was working, Micozzi unearthed what looked like a flat, triangular stone.
At first, he wasn't sure what he'd found, he said.
A geographer and cartographer, Micozzi doesn't have a background in paleontology, the study of prehistoric life. So he picked up the stone and asked the other team members what it was. The stone, it turned out, was a fossilized dinosaur tooth.
Although he'd been told to look out for any bones that might turn up while he was digging, Micozzi said he was surprised with what he'd found.
“I was just digging a trench and being careful not to disturb the bones in the area,” he said. “I wasn't expecting a tooth.”
The tooth had belonged to a type of dinosaur called a theropod. That term, which means “beast-footed,” is a broad designation given to a group of large, meat-eating dinosaurs, said Kyle Davies, the fossil preparator at the University of Oklahoma's Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
That group includes the Tyrannosaurus rex, as well as the Allosaurus and a number of lesser-known dinosaurs, Davies said. The tooth was the first evidence the team had found of a carnivore in the area.
Davies, who also was a part of the dig near Black Mesa, said it's relatively rare to find vertebrate fossils of any kind. One factor that could make theropod teeth a more common find is the fact that the dinosaurs continuously shed their teeth and grew replacements.
Much like today's crocodiles, a theropod's replacement teeth grew in under its existing teeth. So if a dinosaur had a loose tooth, it could fall out while the animal was eating a carcass, Davies said.
The dig was a part of Explorology, a program the museum offers jointly with the Whitten-Newman Foundation. The program gives Oklahoma students and teachers opportunities to participate in field-based scientific research.
Scientists from a broad range of disciplines participate in the program. In Micozzi's case, he plans to use what he learns from the dig in an earth-science course he teaches at ECU.
Part of the purpose of the program is to expose younger students to the thrill of discovering something in the field. But that feeling doesn't wear off with age, Micozzi said — he had the same feeling when he unearthed the tooth.
“The thrill of discovery just overwhelmed me,” Micozzi said. “It really hooked me, and now I'm really excited to go back.”
I was just digging a trench and being careful not to disturb the bones in the area. I wasn't expecting a tooth.”