Alison the rauisuchian was a reptile to be reckoned with in her day, the Late Triassic, and in her neighborhood the spot in supercontinent Pangea that became southern Durham County.
She weighed nearly a ton, and she and her fellow rauisuchians prowled at the top of the food chain until they disappeared at the end of the Triassic, to be succeeded by dinosaurs.
Shes no small shakes in the annals of North Carolina fossil-dom, either. Since her discovery in a Durham County brick quarry by two UNC-Chapel Hill students in 1994, shes been hailed as one of the states most important finds.
Shes the first rauisuchian (raw ih SOO kee un) found in eastern North America, though there have been others in the U.S. West and elsewhere. Shes the only one of her particular species ever found.
Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, Smithsonian Institution senior scientist and curator of vertebrate paleontology, helped with early research carried out by Dr. Joseph G. Carter, paleontology professor in UNC-Chapel Hills Department of Geological Sciences.
The rauisuchians discovery, along with its captured prey, provided unexpected new insights into Late Triassic life in what is now eastern North America, Sues says.
At work in the lab
Now, some of Carters students are finishing the first complete rendition of Alison in polyurethane, readying her for a broad public debut. Its expected to be finished during the fall semester and hopefully will go on display within this next year, perhaps at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. The actual bones are already there, under lock and key.
Though theres no way to determine sex, in scientific parlance, shes Portosuchus (genus) alisonae (species), named by students for the late Alison L. Chambers, their companion on many a paleontology field trip.
To students bending her ribs and putting her tailbone together like a jigsaw puzzle, shes just plain Alison.
Student Maria Connolly asked the assembled heads bent over the polyurethane skeleton one recent morning if they knew why Alison is so trim.
Its her metabolism, Connolly cracks. Shes dead!
Thats not all, chimes in Carter, a transplanted Kansan who echoes the Coroners pronouncement on the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
Not only merely dead, he quotes. But really most sincerely dead.
Two-hundred-and-twenty-one million years dead, give or take 5 million.
Ah, but when she was alive! She wore armor plates on her neck, back and breast, was about 11 feet long, and likely stood upright at least part of the time.
A nickname for a rauisuchian is bear croc it looks like a crocodile, prowls like a bear. Though theyre not ancestors of the dinosaur, Carter says, It was Natures first attempt to build a dinosaur-like predator.
Head uplifted, massive jaws open, eye sockets unseeing, she looms above her builders. On a table nearby, her yet-unattached hands are lifted in an unintended but touching gesture of supplication.
Previous students did an incomplete reconstruction in 2000; it substituted painted Plexiglas for the bones missing when Alison was unearthed. After a campus showing, this first replica was relegated to the lab while Carter and students researched Alisons rauisuchian relatives and used their findings to create the missing parts .
A determination to keep Alison in North Carolina led Carter to take on the arduous task of overseeing her reassembly 18 years ago, even though his specialty is invertebrates. (Hes currently coordinator of an international effort to create the most complete family tree ever assembled for bivalves clams, oysters, and the like.)
But no way, he says, was he going to send Alison out-of-state. This is part of North Carolinas heritage.
Had her bones left, shed be as unknown to most North Carolinians as the states other big vertebrate fossil find a Late Triassic crocodile-like creature, a rutiodon, found in the 1800s in Durham County. Its in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Alison came to light when Carter student Brian Coffey and roommate Marco Brewer spotted some bone chips, then an anklebone, as they hiked the quarry. They felt that this was something big, and when they hauled the anklebone in to Carter, he agreed.
When I saw it, I thought it must be another rutiodon, he says.
A large part of the class went back to the quarry, and subsequently found part of the skull, a couple of teeth, the entire neck, most of the shoulders, two arms complete with hands, the collarbone, breastplate, part of the hip, part of the back, most of both legs including the feet, part of the tail, and many ribs.
It was one of the most complete rauisuchians ever discovered, says Carter. And it was articulated the bones positioned just as theyd been in life.
The crab-like hand with a locked-together thumb and forefinger ending in a sharp claw meant that they had stumbled upon an entirely new species.
The creature was found lying in what was once a lake, on top of captured prey. The spenosuchian crocodylomorph beneath her looked like an alligator in its head, long skinny legs like a greyhound, Carter says. Subsequently researched by the Smithsonians Sues, it was yet another new species, grallator, this one of the genus Dromicosuchus.
Not only that, Alisons stomach area contained remains of four other small Triassic creatures, one of which, Carter says, was second, second, second cousin to a reptile thought to be an ancestor of mammals.
Carter theorizes that having killed its dinner, the rauisuchian was trying to drag it out of the lake when it got stuck in the mud and died.
To test his cause-of-death theory, he tried to walk in the similar sediment of nearby Jordan Lake when the water was low. I tried to see how sticky it was. If you got both legs stuck in there, youre in deep trouble.
Show and tell
Carter wears Hawaiian shirts to class, has a poster of Indiana Jones in his office and, like his students, appreciates but is not overwhelmed by their weighty task. Teaching paleontology, he says, is like having show and tell every day.
Its just fun to talk about new discoveries. People have an inherent desire to know about the world they live in.
Usually, he says, reconstructing a major fossil find is undertaken only by experts in museums. But Alisons promise of being a really marvelous teaching tool prompted him to break tradition and involve undergraduates, even his freshman-seminar students planning to study English, philosophy and the like.
Other experts like Sues and Dr. Paul E. Olsen of Columbia University joined in the research and subsequent paper-writing, as did graduate students Karen Peyer and Stephanie E. Novak.
But it was undergraduates who hauled Alisons skeleton, surrounded by petrified mud, out of the quarry in chunks. Its like these bones were encased in concrete, Carter says.
Some of them, compressed by millions of years worth of sand, fell into pieces. You have to know where they were, and then glue them back together again.
Sure, the 300 students whove worked on Alison have made some mistakes, he says in a later conversation. Just like today, when a rib being bent broke instead.
Sometimes, youve got to break a bone to build a skeleton, he says.