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Paleo-lific: HU professor Steven Jasinski has named seven new dinosaurs—and counting

Steven Jasinski

The name of every new dinosaur species tells a story.

The one recently named by Harrisburg University professor Steven Jasinski—Sierraceratops turneri—is no exception.

“When you go about naming a dinosaur, often times you have to decide what you are going to honor,” Jasinski said, describing how he and other researchers decided what to call the newly discovered horned dinosaur species they uncovered in fossil bones near Truth or Consequences in New Mexico.

Sierra is for Sierra County, the county in New Mexico where the fossil bones were found. Ceratops is the ending commonly used for dinosaurs of the three-horned variety.

Turneri? That honors Ted Turner, founder of CNN and owner of the ranch where the fossil bones were discovered. So Sierraceratops turneri unpacks as “Turner’s Sierra horned dinosaur, or Turner’s horned dinosaur from Sierra,” said Jasinski, of HU’s Department of Environmental Science and Sustainability.

“All dinosaur names can be pulled apart in various ways to figure out what it translates as,” he said.


Scratching the Surface

You’ve no doubt heard of Tyrannosaurus rex, but do you know what that name means?

Tyranno equals tyrant, saurus means lizard and rex means king, “so it translates into a tyrant lizard king,” Jasinski said.

Jasinski has participated in naming and describing two newly discovered dinosaurs within the past year. Sierraceratops turneri is the seventh dinosaur species he has named, on his own or as part of a team.

He’s on a roll, but he’s far from the most prolific of dinosaur discoverers.

A bitter rivalry between two American paleontologists—Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope—fueled research leading to discovery of more than 100 new dinosaur species in the United States in the late 1800s.

Jasinski said that at least 1,100 to 1,200 dinosaur species have been named in all. Mark Norell, chair of the American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Paleontology, sets the number at 1,200 to 1,300.

Dinosaurs lived from about 225 million years ago to about 66 million years ago. A new species evolved about every 2 million years.

“We are kind of only scratching the surface” regarding how many dinosaur species have been discovered compared to how many more await discovery, Jasinski said. “We have at least several thousand more that we could and should be able to find.”

If researchers keep discovering dinosaurs at a rate of 15 or so a year, roughly half the number of discoverable dinosaur species will have been found by 2037, based on research by Steve Wang of Swarthmore College and Peter Dodson of the University of Pennsylvania.

Advances in technology are speeding up the rate of discovery, but mostly on the back end, Jasinski said. Technology allows researchers to get to areas they couldn’t before. But once there, it comes down to what researchers have been doing since the days of Marsh and Cope.

“Get on your hands and knees or walk miles and look for bone fragments and then start digging by hand,” Jasinski said.

It’s in the laboratory where technology is making a difference and accelerating the pace of dinosaur discovery.

For example, with CT scanning, “you can look and find features that you would have never seen that show you there are vast differences in some of these fossils that you wouldn’t have realized,” Jasinski said.

Researchers are also going to new places to find dinosaur species.

In the United States, the area of New Mexico where Sierraceratops was discovered is relatively untapped, compared to the northern Great Plains from Wyoming to Alberta, according to Dodson, who was not connected with the research by Jasinski and the others.

Outside North America, Jasinski said that researchers are focusing on areas in China and in South America.


A Gateway

Other than to provide new material for action toy figures, video games and movies, what can we learn today from discovering new dinosaur species that lived and died millions of years ago?

Plenty, Jasinski said. These species went through climate change and extinction.

“How they reacted to those things is really telling to how today’s animals are going to react to those same kinds of conditions,” he said.

Like most kids, Jasinski grew up liking dinosaurs. He grew out of that and went to school to become a chemist, like his father. But Jasinski soon found he didn’t like chemistry that much.

He was drawn to paleontology after he took a class from a professor who “rekindled my love of all of these things from the past, including dinosaurs.”

The first time Jasinski named a new dinosaur was “incredible,” he said. He uses the same word to describe every time since he has been involved in naming a new dinosaur species.

Dinosaurs are “a gateway” for getting many young people interested in the sciences who would not otherwise be, he said.

They may end up in other fields, such as becoming veterinarians or biologists. But dinosaurs lit the spark, a spark that Jasinski sees in talking to young students with no interest in science who “light up” when he starts talking about dinosaurs.

“They make people interested in discovery and just going into the scientific process and learning things,” he said. “If that gets people interested in chemistry, and we get a lot more chemists and chemical engineers out there who get into this simply because they were interested in dinosaurs, I think that’s absolutely wonderful.”

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