In Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs, large upright slabs of rock stand tall above the surrounding landscape, a breathtaking remnant of the ancient sand dunes that accumulated there. A dinosaur named Theiophytalia kerri, an herbivorous 5 m (16 ft) long ornithopod dinosaur, lived there during the early Cretaceous. It is only known from one specimen, a fossilized skull found in the Garden of the Gods area.
In 1878, Professor James H. Kerr (figure1.) from Colorado College found a skull (figure 2.) in, what was originally thought to be, the late Jurassic Morrison formation (Walker and Johnson, nd). It caught the attention of an acquaintance of Kerr, paleontologist O.C. Marsh. Marsh identified the skull as that of a Camptosaurus, a dinosaur commonly found in the Jurassic rock of the Morrison Formation. Marsh put the skull in storage at the Yale Peabody Museum where it was forgotten (Garden of the Gods Visitor Center wall text, n.d.).
With this specimen was found the following note in Professor O.C. Marsh’s handwriting: “Part of this animal and various Sauropoda bones were taken out by Professor Kerr in 1878” (Garden of the Gods Visitor Center wall text, n.d.).
Because the only known specimen of Theiophytalia is a singular fossilized skull, its full appearance is unknown, and reconstructions of the dinosaur are mostly speculation based off other closely related dinosaurs. It also isn't known where exactly Theiophytalia was found besides the vague recollection of James Kerr telling O.C Marsh that it was found “In one of the ridges east of Garden of the Gods” (Garden of the Gods Visitor Center wall text, n.d.). With an overly broad area where it may have been discovered, it is heavily debated where the exact location where it was found could be. The exact type of rock where it was found would have given us a clear picture of what its environment and habitat would have been like.
However, although we may not know exactly where it was found, with the knowledge of what America was like during the early Cretaceous, we can put together what the basic environment may have been like for Theiophytalia. It lived from 125 to 100.5 million years ago, and the area was most likely a coastal, tropical forest near to the newly forming Western Interior Seaway. It may have shared this environment with a relative called Tenontosaurus and was possibly preyed upon by the predatory raptor Deinonychus and the large theropod dinosaur Acrocanthosaurus.
Thus concludes the life, history, and rediscovery of Theiophytalia Kerri. Its life is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty thanks to the single specimen along with the unknown location of said specimen’s discovery. Today, Theiophytalia is barely a footnote compared to the much more famous and common dinosaurs of the early Cretaceous, but Theiophytalia will hold a special place in our hearts as the mascot dinosaur of Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs. Perhaps one day we will find another specimen that will help us understand more about this dinosaur, and finally rectify Professor Kerr’s inadequate note taking.
References and Further Reading:
Walker, M., K. Johnson, How
A Case of Mistaken Dinosaur Identity Became the Story of A Brand New Dinosaur: retrieved from
https://friendsofgardenofthegods.org/dinosaurs-in-the-garden on October 1,
Brill, K., K. Carpenter, 2006, A description of a new ornithopod from the Lytle Member of the Purgatoire Formation (Lower Cretaceous) and a reassessment of the skull of Camptosaurus. Horns and Beaks: Ceratopsian and Ornithopod Dinosaurs. 49-67.
Garden of the Gods Visitor Center, n.d., [wall text] Theiophytalia kerri, Colorado Springs, CO.
Note: the author is 16 years old and in the 10th grade in Colorado Springs.