Unearthed dinosaur to carry name of Utah professor

2010-06-06T00:02:33Z 2013-06-11T10:00:52Z Unearthed dinosaur to carry name of Utah professorBecky Cairns - AP Member Exchange. Daily Herald
June 06, 2010 12:02 am  • 

OGDEN -- For a guy who isn't crazy about dinosaurs, Jeffrey Eaton can't escape one with the 24 horns on its head.

The rhino-sized fellow is, of all things, Eaton's namesake.

He's Diabloceratops eatoni, a Utah dinosaur that lived 80 million years ago but was officially named and introduced to the world in a scientific publication in late May.

The nearly complete skull of the creature was unearthed eight years ago in southern Utah by a team led by Eaton's friend and colleague James Kirkland.

Kirkland is crazy about dinosaurs, you see, the discoverer of several new species including the infamous Utahraptor. So Kirkland decided to christen this new find after his longtime buddy Eaton, a Weber State University paleontologist who avoids dinos to hunt for small mammal fossils instead.

"I'll teach him -- I'm going to name a dinosaur after him," quips Kirkland, the Utah state paleontologist.

Although he said he is "greatly disinterested" in dinosaurs, Eaton is also accustomed to the giant reptiles of the Mesozoic era grabbing all of the attention.

"Mammals don't get much press, unless they're human mammals," the geosciences professor said.

Still, it's the remains of ancient rodent-sized creatures that lived during the age of dinosaurs that capture his imagination -- "these little things on the heads of pins," he said as he holds up a clear vial with a tiny gray tooth mounted inside.

The professor pulls open drawer after drawer, revealing hundreds of such vials in his lab at Weber State, all objects collected in Utah.

"These are mammal teeth, from the same time as that dinosaur is from," Eaton explains.

As for that dinosaur -- his namesake -- he said, "I don't really care about the dinosaur; I appreciate the recognition from Jim."

Diabloceratops eatoni was duly named with the publication of its discovery in "New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs" on May 28 by the University of Indiana Press. The book features numerous scientific papers, including the one by Kirkland and colleague Don DeBlieux of the Utah Geological Survey.

With its striking horns, the rest of dinosaur's name came easily, Kirkland said.

"It kind of made me think of the devil -- some of the old images of the devil," he said, so he chose the Spanish word "diablo."

The "eatoni" he added because, "That looks kind of like Jeff."

This naming game isn't new for Eaton. He has three other finds bearing his moniker -- a marsupial, a lizard and a genus of trace fossil -- given by other colleagues.

When it comes to what your namesake might be: "One cannot pick and choose," Eaton said.

Eaton has also honored his pal by naming a mammal for Kirkland; it was the world's oldest-known marsupial at the time it was found. Kirkland discovered its jawbone when the two scientists were working together in 1985 in the area that's now the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument.

But Eaton's fossil namings don't generate quite the fanfare of a dinosaur.

"When I name these, absolutely nobody cares. It's very quiet, it's very peaceful," said Eaton, the recipient of Weber State's 2008 Hinckley Award for professor of the year.

Most folks don't realize mammals -- and frogs, lizards and salamanders -- all lived with the dinosaurs, Eaton said. Some of the creatures, like the multituberculates he studies, no longer exist.

"I like the archaic and weird groups," he said.

Paleontology and geology weren't Eaton's first career choices. The Delaware native is a classical bass player who majored in music performance at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.

His apartment was across the street from the American Museum of Natural History, where he often visited and became fascinated with exhibits of certain tiny, "pristine" ancient mammal jaws.

"They struck me as just beautiful and inherently interesting," he said.

Most came from Wyoming, so that's where Eaton "irrationally" decided to go after graduating with his music degree in 1971. He ended up in Laramie, Wyo., doing graduate work in music but also studying geology, eventually earning a master's degree and later, in Colorado, a doctorate.

"I just came West ... for a summer and I never went back," Eaton said. Eaton joined the Weber State faculty in 1995.

Whole mammal skeletons are hard to come by because the small animals' remains were fragile and easily broken apart, Eaton said. He finds occasional limb bones but mostly teeth, just 4 millimeters or smaller in size.

"I'm sort of a fossil dentist," he said, adding that studying teeth reveals a lot about the Earth through changes in food sources or climate.

Every summer, Eaton does field research in Southern Utah, based out of a house he and his wife Linda own in Tropic, near Bryce Canyon National Park.

The professor invites his students from Weber State to work there.

"Geology, you can only do so much in the classroom," he said. "Geology is a field science ... the more experience they get in the field, the better geologists they are."

The students collect rocks and wash and screen them at Eaton's home, looking for fossils under microscopes. The items they find eventually go to the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah.

Most undergraduates never receive such an opportunity to do research, said Russell Goodin, a 2006 graduate of Weber State who studied geology with Eaton in Tropic.

"The coolest thing about it was just being exposed to actual geological practices, practices geologists use in the real world," said Goodin, a former West Haven resident now working as a geologist for an Oklahoma oil and gas company.

Cameron Thompson, a former student now working in Calgary, Alberta, said the professor was a great mentor who helped him learn to think critically.

"He's willing to set aside the time for you, be it in the lab for you or opening his home in Tropic. He's willing to do the extra bit," said the former Manti resident. Eaton is a world authority on small mammal fossils, creatures often overlooked during the age of the dinosaurs, Weber State's chairman of the geosciences department Adolph Yonkee said.

Although we tend to focus on the "phantasmagorical," Yonkee said, "If you want to understand the ancient environment, you need to understand the small things as well."

Dale Ostlie, dean of the College of Science, said Eaton's research is well-known and widely published. During recent summers, the professor has been cataloging the small fossils of Bryce Canyon National Park.

He said Eaton's work "gives us a much bigger picture of the nature of life and the diversity of life back in that time."

A Fulbright Scholar, Eaton has done research in the Czech Republic and other parts of the globe, but said Utah's Colorado Plateau, for him, is still the "most wonderful place in the world."

"It's the freedom, the openness, the quietness, the peace," he said.

The state's natural beauty is something that Utahns need to preserve, he said, because it's an incomparable treasure:

"If they lose it, they never get it back."

Becky Cairns writes for the Standard-Examiner.

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