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Illustration by Debby Kaspari
More than 150 million years ago, two dinosaur species faced off in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Their predator-prey showdown, immortalized at an Oklahoma museum, still has the Sooner State shaking.
By Nathan Gunter
Art by Debby Kaspari
Published November/December 2012
A primitive bird pursues a shrew-like animal near a small lake. The prey darts into its den under a stand of tall ferns, narrowly missing a bite from the larger animal. As the predator surveys the spot where its intended meal has just disappeared, the ground begins to shake. The feathered hunter loses its footing as the rumbling gets stronger. Meanwhile, twenty feet up, a head peeks out from a strand of conifers, followed by a twenty-foot neck.
A herd of Apatosaurs emerges from the forest and approaches the lake, their thirty-ton bodies shaking the ground with each step. They crane their long necks to strip vegetation from the high branches, snapping smaller trees’ trunks as they pass.
It is a warm day, and many animals have come to the water in a moist, humid area that will someday be known as the Oklahoma Panhandle. Evergreens and cypress trees loom over an understory of tall ferns and cycads—stout, woody plants with crowns of large, stiff leaves—leading to the water’s edge, where a menagerie of creatures have gathered. Some, like the Apatosaurs, are among the largest animals that will ever walk the face of the earth: long-necked, plant-eating reptiles, members of a suborder known as sauropods. Nearby, a mated pair of Stegosaurs—twenty-five-foot-long reptiles with enormous bony plates running the length of their backs—protect their nest.
But the animals gathered at this watering hole are being watched by two yellow-eyed carnivores waiting for the ideal moment to strike. The large predators, partially concealed from view by camouflage stripes, watch as a young Apatosaurus, no more than two or three years old, wanders away from its mother to graze on ferns near the edge of the woods.
The predators wait, their enormous leg muscles tensing. In a flash, the pair of Saurophaganax dash from the woods, pursuing the young straggler while its back is turned. But they did not wait long enough, and the mother Apatosaur charges, placing her ninety-two-foot-long frame between the hunters and her offspring. Her long tail lashes the air, and the Saurophaganax dodge to avoid it, gnashing five-inch, razor-sharp teeth. The baby Apatosaur takes shelter between its mother’s legs, and as the rest of the herd turns to surround the predators, they retreat into the forest to look for other prey, their roars of frustration echoing across the lake.
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Paleontologists discourage amateur fossil-digging on private land, and removing fossils from public land is prohibited by law. A set of fossilized dinosaur footprints is viewable in a dried riverbed near the trailhead that leads to the top of Black Mesa. The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History contains approximately 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, and its Hall of Ancient Life is home to a number of dinosaur specimens, including Saurophaganax, Apatosaurus, Tenontosaurus, and Sauroposeidon, all of which have been discovered in Oklahoma. The museum’s ten-and-a-half-foot skull of the horned Pentaceratops holds a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest dinosaur skull. 2401 Chautauqua Avenue in Norman. (405) 325-4712 or snomnh.ou.edu.