- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Middle school student Aiden Taylor was excited to start his summer at a dusty camp in the heat of rural Greene County hunting for dinosaur bones.

“I was just hoping to find anything. I wished to find dinosaur bones or some mosasaur bones,” said the 12-year-old from Bay Minette.

Finally, the boy, whose fascination with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals began as a young child, was on an expedition. He was part of a group of middle school students participating in the annual summer field program put on by the University of Alabama Museum of Natural History.

Aiden’s first expedition became the latest entry in the story of a rare set of fossils in the state slowly emerging from the chalk deposits near Eutaw. Taylor discovered a vertebra from an elasmosaur, Cretaceous-Period, long-necked leviathans that prowled a sea whose shoreline traced along Alabama’s Black Belt region approximately 80 million years ago.

In 2013, another camper discovered the first fossils from the large marine reptile - the inspiration for the Loch Ness Monster myth - at the small quarry in rural Greene County, a site frequented by the annual summer field program.

“I found it on the first day we were hunting fossils,” Aiden said. “Half of it was sticking out of the ground, so I yelled to everybody, ‘Hey I think I found something.’ “

Noah Traylor, the teen who discovered the first piece of backbone and was serving as a volunteer aid this year for the middle school camp, helped Aiden chip out the fossil.

The most recent vertebra was found near the 2013 find. Dana Ehret, curator of paleontology for the University of Alabama Museums, believes the vertebrae are from the same animal.

Ehret and others had returned to the site since 2013, but the vertebra went undiscovered until the camp earlier this month.

“In paleontology, it’s not completely unheard of to have this kind of thing,” he said of finding fossils from the same animal years apart.

The university takes campers out to the site every other year or so. The chalk is slow to erode, so the researchers give the sites time for nature “to take its course,” Ehret said.

“It’s a big area, it’s a big animal,” he said.

The skeleton discovered by the campers is one of three elasmosaurs found in the last 150 years of collecting in the state.

The marine reptiles are believed to have grown as large as 45 feet long. They could have anywhere from 30-75 vertebrae. While the researchers know the family, they won’t be able to identify the genus or species without a skull or pelvic bone, Ehret said. The vertebrae don’t offer enough details by themselves.

The campers and researchers also collected other fossils from the site, including fish and sharks’ teeth.

“We are trying to figure out, 80 million years ago, what did this spot look like,” Ehret said.

So far, University of Alabama researchers have recovered 15 vertebrae from the elasmosaur, as well as a mix of smaller fragments, such as flipper bones.

Ehret believes the fossils are part of an incomplete set of remains likely from an animal that died and was scavenged on the Cretaceous seabed. Circular stains the color of iron oxide on the chalk-coated fossil are signs of oysters that encrusted the backbone.

Elasmosaurs are a rare find in the Black Belt’s fossil bed, which includes the remains of Cretaceous fish, turtles, sharks and whales that inhabited the shallow marine environment that used to cover west Alabama. Elasmosaurs typically inhabited deeper water than the environment that stretched across the region.

“They are rare - we are happy to find all fossils - but the rare stuff is what excites us the most,” Ehret said.

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