Dinosaur Jim Jensen

A front page article in the December 6th, 1969 issue of the New York Times announced to the world the discovery of a partial upper jaw of a 200 million year old reptile called a Lystrosaurus. That, in itself, is not very newsworthy since Lystrosaurus and similar mammal-like reptiles are relatively common in formations in Africa, South America, India, and China. What made this find unusual was that it was made in Antarctica, at a place called Coalsack Bluff, some 375 miles from the South Pole. What makes it significant to Millard County is that it was made by “Dinosaur Jim Jensen”, a former resident of our County. Author and naturalist Roger Lewin calls this “one of the great fossil finds of all time.”

Lystrosaurus was a large, tropical, swamp-loving creature with some characteristics in common with modern pigs; it probably spent at least part of its time wallowing in the mud of shallow streams and lakes - so what on Earth was it doing in perpetually frozen Antarctica? The answer is that the continents have moved. During the Triassic Period when Lystrosaurus was alive, Antarctica was near the equator. Jensen’s discovery proved to be the clincher in the scholarly debate over the so-called Continental-Drift Theory. Up until then there had been hold-outs; now pretty much everyone was on-board. How else can you explain Lystrosaurus in Antarctica.

Jim Jensen was many things in life: at one time or another he was a miner, a dock-worker, a depression-era hobo, an inventor, a painter, a naturalist, an adventurer, a writer, a fossil preparatory, and a museum curator. But most of all, he was a paleontologist – a dinosaur paleontologist, and one of the best; he had a natural talent for finding bones. Without doubt, he was the most productive dinosaur collector of recent time. When he ran out of storage space at his BYU museum, the University let him store his fossils in the only space large enough to hold them – under the football stadium. He believes there are a hundred tons of dinosaur remains there which represents about 100 years of laboratory preparation. “I know there are at least two dozen new dinosaurs in storage there,” he once told a reporter, “all previously unknown. Since I left there, the preparator has been opening up blocks that I collected and discovering marvelous things.”

The remarkable success which came to Jim resulted in frequent mention in the literature, both scholarly and popular, and appearances in almost every dinosaur documentary ever produced. His published articles are far too numerous to try to list, but perhaps the most unusual part of his life concerns his educational background. Most students start out with a high school diploma, followed by a college level BA or BS degree, and then maybe a masters or doctorate. Never a conformist – Jim went in the other direction. As he once described it: “He was someone failing through structured teaching;” in short, he failed to graduate from high school. Some 36 years later he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from BYU. That was in 1972. Then in 1975, Delta High School asked him to deliver the baccalaureate address and he replied: “Would it be possible for me to graduate?” They could see no reason why not and so they prepared a diploma and Dinosaur Jim, age 56, marched with the graduates and received his diploma.

Some of the information for this article comes from the book: Hunting Dinosaurs, by Louie Psihoyos, Random House, New York, 1994 and also from Histories and Stories of Leamington and Fool Creek Flat, compiled by Joan Nielson Bird, DMT Publishing, 2000.