| WSU geosciences professor Jeff Eaton stands next to a fossil |
skull of a Diabloeceratops eatoni, which was named for him.
“It’s become progressively more common to name species after somebody who has had bearing on that area of study or made contributions to the field,” Eaton said.
Diabloceratops eatoni was discovered in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), a region of the state where Eaton has conducted field research for nearly a quarter of a century. The discovery was made by Eaton’s longtime collaborator and friend, James Kirkland.
It’s a friendship that began at the University of Colorado in the early 1980s when Eaton and Kirkland had adjoining cubicles while working on their dissertations in graduate school.
Loosely translated, Diabloceratops means horned-face devil, a name inspired by the pair of long sweeping spines on the back of the head or frill of the fossil skull. The patronym eatoni recognizes Eaton’s extensive work on the Cretaceous vertebrate faunas of southern Utah and his decades-long field research in that region.
“With its spectacular horns, it is hard to not affectionately think of naming one old goat after another old goat,” Kirkland joked.
Apparently Kirkland is simply returning a favor. Years ago Eaton discovered a mammal fossil in GSENM and named it for his former graduate school colleague, who first led him to a region of the state Eaton calls “a treasure trove of fossils from the Cenomanian Stage of the Late Cretaceous, Dakota Formation.”
Even 25 years later, Eaton describes the area as “the most important locale of that geological age in our hemisphere—if not the globe—for vertebrates.”
Kirkland notes the irony in naming a dinosaur after Eaton, who eschews dinosaur hunting in favor of small animal fossils such as reptiles and amphibians that co-existed with the larger, more celebrated prehistoric creatures.
“Small vertebrates offer 10,000 specimens a summer,” Eaton said, compared with the typical one or two dinosaur finds each season. “The samples offer a much greater database to study the ecosystem of that time period, which enhances our understanding.”
Eaton, the recipient of WSU’s prestigious Hinckley Award in 2008, is uncomfortable with all the attention, deflecting the spotlight on Kirkland and Don DeBlieux, one of Kirkland’s associates with the Utah Geological Survey who located and prepared the Diabloceratops specimen.
“The Utah Geological Survey and Department of Natural Resources have a lot of dedicated civil servants like Jim and Don who are working their butts off and finding wonderful specimens,” Eaton said. “We have people doing excellent work and drawing attention to the scientific record this state and region have to offer.”
Kirkland’s findings will be included in the forthcoming book “New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs” (2009, University of Indiana Press), scheduled to be released in late May 2010.
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