Art and geology students at Appalachian collaborate to sculpt Triassic aetosaur based on a handful of pre-historic bones unearthed in North Carolina


Forget Jurassic Park. Appalachian State University will soon have its own Triassic Park – complete with its very own dinosaur-like creature.

In truth, the “park” will be a reconstructed aetosaur habitat in the Fred Webb Jr. Outdoor Geology Laboratory/Interactive Rock Garden that runs along Rankin Science South. The garden will be home to a cast bronze replica of Gorgetosuchus pekinensis, a Maurice Sendak-like reptile that roamed the Upper Triassic Pekin Formation, Deep River Basin, North Carolina, 230 million years ago.

Why Gorgetosuchus? And, why here? This aetosaur, an armored reptile related to but more primitive than crocodiles, was identified in 2015 based on 10 rows of bony plates called osteoderms, representing the front part of an armored shield that would have covered the back of the animal. The plates were found embedded in sandstone and conglomerate boulders near a brick quarry in Chatham County, North Carolina. Appalachian Professor of Geology Andy Heckert was leader for the research team that named Gorgetosuchus, hence the Appalachian connection.

Furthermore, Lauren Waterworth, J.D., geology lecturer on environmental law, researched and painted a few small 3-D likenesses of the bones for Heckert “to make them more lifelike. I fell down an Internet wormhole, looking at models and museum displays. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a full-size model of our aetosaur?’” Her brainstorm resulted in an unusual collaboration between art students in the College of Fine and Applied Arts and scientists in the College of Arts and Sciences to create a museum-quality installation for the campus.

Waterworth said everything simply fell into place. She shared her idea about the model with Hecket who replied, “I could get on board with that.”

“If you know Andy,” she explained, “that was a really enthusiastic response.” She thought someone in the art area might have some ideas about who might help construct the model and, when she approached Travis Donovan, sculptor and visiting assistant professor, he immediately said, “This would make a great project for my fall sculpture class.” Waterworth was elated. “I said to myself, this is gonna happen. It really is. It’s the Appalachian way.”

Donovan said he recognized a great opportunity for “students to grapple with the real-life challenges and problem-solving skills that are involved with actual design and fabrication collaborations. I wanted this to be a student-driven project to allow them experience in navigating a collaborative and professional atmosphere reminiscent to a commission or client- driven project.”

With help in writing the grant and budget from the Office of Research, Waterworth secured initial funding and she will shepherd the project through to its placement in the rock garden in fall 2018. The project will culminate with a celebration during the 2019 Science Festival and Steam Expo, held in spring 2019.

Ultimately, Waterworth said the project will include hours of student and faculty involvement in sculpting, scientific oversight and development of educational materials; creation of the natural habitat in the rock garden in conjunction with the university’s Physical Plant; funding of up to $100,000; and collaboration with a paleo-illustrator from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, a foundry outside of Winston Salem and possibly a documentary filmmaker.