Dinosaur-Era Crocodile-Like Animal Fossils Found in Huge Deposit in Bears Ears National Monument

Snout of the Triassic phytosaur Pravusuchus, part of a specimen looted from Bears Ears National Monument in the 1990s and recovered as part of the remains found in Bears Ears. The Wilderness Society

Paleontologists have discovered an enormous deposit of reptile fossils in Bears Ears National Monument—one of the parks for which President Donald Trump has pledged to shrink protection.

The deposit "may be one of the world's richest caches of Triassic period fossils," according to a Wilderness Society press release. Paleontologists have extracted only a small portion of the Bears Ears find, but have already found that it's dense with fossilized remains. So far, they've found teeth and bones from several phytosaurs, which are related to crocodiles and look similar.

Paleontologists published a review of the fossils they found, dubbing the site, "Portal to NeCrocPolis." As astounding as the find is, though, the area itself is under threat.

In late 2016, Utah's Bears Ears park, where these fossils were found, was named a national monument. But in early December, Trump announced he would shrink protection for the 1.35-million-acre monument by 85 percent, in an effort to encourage industry.

Without the protection, "NeCrocPolis" could be lost to mining, off-road vehicle use or looting, The Wilderness Society worries.

Paleontologist Rob Gay looking over a Triassic exposure in an area formerly within Bears Ears National Monument. The Wilderness Society

The Triassic period, during which these animals lived and died, occurred between 199 million and 251 million years ago, and was the time of some of the first-ever dinosaurs. Also around were diverse relatives of modern alligators and crocodiles, such as the phytosaurs, which were long, sharp-toothed, and short-legged, just like modern versions. Fossil evidence suggests that they went extinct at the end of the Triassic, making way for other crocodile relatives.

Paleontologist Rob Gay, who led the dig, said the find could yield some incredible discoveries. "If this site can be fully excavated, it is likely that we will find many other intact specimens," he said in a press release. "And quite possibly even new vertebrate species."