On the bus one day I found myself in a conversation about geological science with a bespectacled gentleman in a white fedora. Joe Carter is his name, and he’s an expert on prehistoric mollusks. Ah, fascinating. I told him I have a six-year-old son who says he wants to be a paleontologist.

“Really!” Carter was impressed. “Well, he might be interested in Alison the rauisuchian.”

“Alison the what?”

Turns out, two of Carter’s students discovered fossil remains of a prehistoric reptile—a rauisuchian, pronounced raw-ih-SOO-kee-un—12 feet long from head to tail. It isn’t technically a dinosaur. In fact, it predates the best-known dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus and Brachiosaurus, by tens of millions of years.

Back in the rauisuchian’s prime, some 220 million years ago, it would rear back on its hind legs like a bear and attack both large and small unsuspecting creatures. Carter’s rauisuchian was discovered with part of a cow-sized reptile in its stomach, as well as animals the size of dogs and rats.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Donn Young

“It was a top predator,” Carter says. It weighed about 600 pounds and could stand taller than six feet. That’s larger than any carnivorous dinosaur of the Triassic period. And no one had ever found another rauisuchian quite like it. “The fossil really should be the official state fossil,” he says. Right now, North Carolina has no official state fossil. Carter’s rauisuchian, I would learn, is not the only candidate.

We got off the bus and walked to Mitchell Hall, where Carter’s lab is replete with bones, books, shelves of binders, casts of ancient skulls, and a poster of Indiana Jones.

“Here.” He handed me a polyurethane cast of a foot-long, 500-million-year-old trilobite—thought to be the near ancestor of modern-day horseshoe crabs. “Your son might like this.” (You bet he would.)

Strewn on long tables in Carter’s lab were ribs, femurs, vertebrae, and a skull full of teeth the size of triple-A batteries. All parts of his rauisuchian. Not the actual fossil fragments—those, for the time being, are kept under lock and key at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. The largest fragment is a foot with an ankle.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Karin Peyer

What Carter was showing me were polyurethane casts of the rauisuchian that UNC students and volunteers had been making for nearly two decades. Someday soon, Carter says, his team will finish reconstructing the full skeleton in a hunter’s pose. Not an easy task, as anyone with a kid who fancies dinosaur documentaries will readily tell you.

But Carter the clam expert was a quick study when it came to vertebrate paleontology. And as luck would have it, one of his former graduate students who had become a rauisuchian expert strolled back into Carter’s lab right when his team of skeleton reconstructionists needed her most.

Carter’s story seemed vaguely familiar to me. Back at the office, I rummaged through the archives to find an Endeavors issue with an illustration of a weird-looking reptile on the cover. Turns out, before I arrived here, former Endeavors editor Neil Caudle wrote about the discovery of Carter’s rauisuchian and some of the mystery surrounding this unique species.

It all began, as Caudle wrote in 2000, by chance:

To the west, on the flanks of the mountains, shadows descend on the conifers, restless and dark. Near the edge of a stream, a slender, long-legged reptile wades out on an apron of mud. The mud is too soft. He mires in it, thrashing. And that’s when the predator charges, wading upright on hind legs through the mud, clamping down with its five-fingered hands, and biting so hard and so deep into the neck of its prey that the teeth penetrate the vertebra, crushing the bone. The predator tries to drag its victim back to the bank, but the mud is too soft. He staggers and topples, and sinks belly-down in the mud.

Buried together, their bodies decompose. The mud hardens around them, the hip of the predator pressed to the spine of its prey. Continents divide. Africa tears itself away, heading east. Time piles up layers on layers of stone.

And then one day in September 1994, Brian Coffey, an undergraduate geology student at Carolina, strolls around in a brick quarry somewhere south of Durham, studying ancient river deposits. He’s brought along his roommate, Marco Brewer, an anthropology major. They hike up and down the undulating bedding horizons, where a bulldozer has shaved off chunks of the sandstone. The afternoon wears on, and they are just about to leave when they cross a dried-up wash, and Coffey, already the sort of geologist who reads the earth’s fine print as he goes, spots a grayish speck of bone.

He finds another, and another—a trail of them like bread crumbs, scattered up the wash. Coffey and Brewer follow the trail uphill, finding larger and larger fragments, until Coffey can’t take the suspense.

“Forget these little pieces,” he says. “I’m going up there.” He scrambles up to the source of the wash and drops to his knees in a semicircle of bone. He and Brewer pick up chunk after chunk, dropping them into sample bags. Then Coffey begins tapping at the soft stone with his rock hammer. The pick of the hammer smacks something hard.

It takes his breath.

“Whoa,” he says. “Whoa.”

The next day, Joe Carter looks up, and there’s Brian Coffey holding what appears to be an enormous anklebone.

Coffey and classmates returned to the quarry the next day and excavated blocks of rock containing the arms, legs, shoulder, neck, belly armor, and parts of the skull, back, rib cage, hip, and tail.

Click to read photo caption. Illustration by Karin Peyer

Back at the lab, Carter realized that they had collected more than one animal. There were fossils of a three-foot-long crocodile-like animal with long, spindly legs. And where the larger animal’s stomach would’ve been, Carter found remnants of four smaller animals, their bones seemingly partially digested.

He had colleagues outside of UNC study the smaller fossils so he could focus on the largest reptile. Carter immersed himself in the literature on vertebrate paleontology and determined that his students had unearthed a rauisuchian—a large archosaur from the Triassic period.

Carter then traveled to Texas, Pennsylvania, England, and Germany to study ancient reptiles he suspected were related to his. That research led him to believe that his rauisuchian was from the genus Postosuchus and that the hand of his beast was unlike that of any known species.

Though Carter was quickly becoming an expert in rauisuchian hands, other research projects were pulling him away from his huge reptile. An outside paleontologist offered to take the rauisuchian off Carter’s hands. This researcher had the time, resources, and expertise to study the fossils, write up the findings in research papers, and recreate a full skeleton for display at a museum. He wanted those bones.

Carter balked. He realized the importance of the fossil for North Carolina and was determined that it stay in the state. “It belongs here,” he says, “where it was found.”

Carter then made a tactical decision. He’d return to his bivalve research but also create a team of North Carolina graduate students and outside experts to describe the rauisuchian in detail. The reconstruction of the skeleton would take place here, in Carter’s lab in Mitchell Hall. He’d also incorporate the reconstruction in a new seminar. He’d call it Bringing Bones Back to Life.

But Carter didn’t have any graduate students who could take the lead.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Donn Young

Enter Karin Peyer, a vertebrate paleontology graduate student from Switzerland. Peyer made the rauisuchian the focus of her graduate work at UNC, studying how the bones fit together. Carter enlisted the help of a second grad student, Stephanie Novak, whom Carter sent to study another rauisuchian fossil that had a complete hand. Novak’s research confirmed Carter’s suspicion that his specimen’s crab-claw-like hand was unique, proving that it was a previously undiscovered species.

No one had found anything quite like it before, and nothing like it has been unearthed since. They named it Postosuchus alisonae in honor of amateur Chapel Hill fossil hunter Alison Chambers, who had audited several of Carter’s courses, dug up fossils with students, and who was dying of cancer.

Meanwhile, Carter and his students started piecing together a partial reconstruction of the rauisuchiuan, which they began calling Alison, but their partial skeleton was a far cry from the upright monster that museum-goers are used to seeing. That, in time, would change.

Since 2001, Carter and his students—mostly in first-year seminars and prehistoric life classes—slowly added to the skeleton.

Alison had become a teaching tool. And so for the next 10 years, hundreds of students learned how to create clay and polyurethane bones, mold vertebrae, and piece together an ancient beast using casts of actual fossils that Carter’s team had unearthed themselves—a unique thing for any university, let alone one without a vertebrate paleontologist on staff.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Donn Young

Carter started teaching an introductory course to vertebrate paleontology, which he went on to teach for 15 years.

His team’s work attracted countless volunteers from the community and scores of undergraduates who had no intention of earning a degree in geological sciences. They just loved natural history. They marveled at evolution and the magic of geological time. Helping bring Alison back to life became their mission.

By the summer of 2012, Alison was fully researched, expertly described, and on her way to being completely reconstructed. The work, though, was slow and the team lacked a rauisuchian expert.

Reenter Karin Peyer.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Mark Derewicz

Since graduating from UNC, she’d been studying prehistoric reptiles for a decade in France. But when her husband took a position as visiting professor at UNC, Peyer returned to Chapel Hill. She was on sabbatical and had a research position at NC State when she visited Carter during the summer of 2012.

“I just stopped by to say hi to Joe,” she says. “And Joe said, ‘I’m so glad you’re here!’”

Carter led her to the room where they kept Alison, and when he flicked on the lights, Peyer was amazed at the job Carter’s students and volunteers had done. But then she took a closer look at the skeleton.

“Alison looks a little odd, doesn’t she?” Carter asked Peyer. Her legs were turned inward, almost touching the pole that supports the skeleton. Peyer agreed. “It looks like she’s ready to dance like Elvis Presley,” Peyer said.

As Carter and Peyer fixed Alison’s legs, Peyer began a detailed examination of the skeleton and found that some of Alison’s ribs were a bit too long, the vertebrae weren’t set correctly, the upper arm bones were reversed, and the feet weren’t in the proper position. “We had to crack the toe bones so Alison was posed in the way she would’ve walked,” Peyer says.

All this—as well as casting the rest of the skeleton—was tedious work that took Carter and Peyer several more months. They say they couldn’t have done it without help from UNC students and volunteers, especially Jim Charton and undergraduate Maria Connolly, who had been casting bones and securing them to the main skeleton under Carter’s guidance prior to Peyer’s return.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Donn Young

This February, Carter was teaching a class while Peyer and Charton were in the lab painting the skeleton when I dropped by. I asked Peyer how she knew which colors to use. She opened a small white box and inside was a bone fragment. “This is an actual fossil bone of Alison we dug up in that quarry,” she says. She put the brownish-gray fragment next to a polyurethane bone she had created and painted. They were identical. The even felt the same.

Two weeks later—after 20 years—Alison was completely reconstructed and ready for display in a museum.

But before bidding Alison adieu, Carter will unveil her at UNC’s Graham Memorial Hall on Sunday, March 3, at 1:00 p.m., when onlookers will be able to study the skeleton and ask questions of Carter’s team.

It will be a one-day showing. Alison is too sacred keep her unguarded. Carter will put her back under lock and key in Mitchell Hall and wait for officials from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences to claim her.

Her story, though, is not quite finished. At least, Carter hopes it isn’t.

On the bus back home from campus, I spotted Carter, his white fedora pulled over his eyes. He was tired—the end of another long week working with students and bivalves under the glare of Alison the rauisuchian.

I said hello and asked where the quest stood to designate Alison as the official state fossil. Carter sprung to life. Alison still got his energy up. “Oh, I think we have a very strong case,” he said.

There are several competitors, but he thinks the biggest threat to Alison’s candidacy is C. megalodon, a prehistoric shark more than five times the size of the modern-day great white shark. The mighty beast has captured the imagination of kids across the world.

Click to read photo caption. Illustration by Karin Peyer

But because sharks are mostly cartilage, the only megalodon fossils remaining are teeth, which have been found up and down the East Coast and around the world. From one perspective, that’s the appeal of C. megalodon—its teeth would be a state fossil that North Carolinians could actually find or buy. My kid has one. But any state could legislate that megalodon teeth be its official fossil. Georgia, for instance, already did that.

Alison’s story, on the other hand, is one of a kind. She was discovered by Carolina students. She was researched, expertly described, and reconstructed by a Carolina alum, UNC students, and volunteers from the community under the supervision of a professor from the state’s flagship university.

And maybe most importantly, Alison is a North Carolina native.

“I think that’s pretty special,” Carter says. “No one has ever found another Alison. Anywhere.” 

Joe Carter is a professor of geological sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. Karin Peyer, who earned a master’s degree in geological sciences from UNC in 2001, is on sabbatical from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, where she earned a doctorate in 2004. In 2012–13, Peyer was a visiting researcher in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at NC State. Their paper describing Postosuchus alisonae appeared in the June 2008 edition of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.