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Lake Park alum lives 'every little kid's dream' of discovering new dino
By Elisabeth Mistretta | Daily Herald Staff

Western Illinois University professor Matthew Bonnan, a 1991 Lake Park High School graduate, shows the thigh bones of the dinosaur Aardonyx. Bonnan and a team of fellow scientists discovered Aardonyx in South Africa.


Courtesy of Western Illinois University

Western Illinois University professor Matthew Bonnan, right, a 1991 Lake Park High School graduate, studies fossils of the dinosaur Aardonyx with colleague Adam Oates. The two men and a team of fellow scientists discovered Aardonyx in South Africa.


Courtesy of Western Illinois University

Lake Park High School alumnus Matthew Bonnan on a dig in South Africa. He is a vertebrate paleobiologist who teaches at Western Illinois University and helped discover the fossils of a new species of dinosaur, Aardonyx, in South Africa.


Courtesy of Western Illinois University

Artists' rendering of how Aardonyx measures in size to an average human. A team of scientists, including Lake Park High School alum Matthew Bonnan, discovered fossils of this new species this year in South Africa.


Courtesy of Western Illinois University

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Published: 11/24/2009 12:06 AM

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Matthew Bonnan says he's living every kid's fantasy.

When he was just a 5-year-old growing up in Roselle, Bonnan already knew dinosaurs were his thing.

By the time he was devouring books on the prehistoric beasts at Westfield Middle School school in Bloomingdale and, later, at Lake Park High School in Roselle, Bonnan announced to his parents he would earn a Ph.D. and become a paleontologist.

He actually delivered on his promise, becoming a paleobiologist and professor at Western Illinois University.

But this year the 36-year-old reached a milestone he never foresaw.

Bonnan and a team of five other researchers traveled to South Africa and discovered fossils of a new dinosaur species, Aardonyx celestae.

"It's sort of like winning the lottery; you don't expect that it will ever happen to you," Bonnan said. "It's sort of every little kid's dream: 'I'm gonna discover a new dinosaur.'"

The search for Aardonyx began when Bonnan and fellow scientist Matthew Yates applied for a grant from National Geographic, which was funded in 2004, to explore an area of South Africa.

Bonnan said South Africa houses rocks that are the right age to provide a rare window between when dinosaurs were small in the Triassic Period, until they became the famously gigantic creatures of the Jurassic Period.

When the group finally hit the scientific-jackpot this year, Bonnan's job was to figure out exactly what Aardonyx did when it was alive. He also published the group's findings this month in the London-based, peer-reviewed journal, "Proceedings of the Royal Society B."

"My role was determining to look at the skull, backbone and limbs and answer things like 'How did it move? How did it eat?'" said Bonnan.

The answer is that Aardonyx was a 23-foot-long small-headed herbivore with a huge barrel chest. It walked on its hind legs but also could drop to all fours.

But, for Bonnan, this is not the final answer - nor an excuse to coast through the rest of his career.

"When you do a job like this, you're always interested in the bigger-picture question," he said. "I'm interested in why dinosaurs on average got so big, and why the average mammal did not. I don't view it as all downhill from here, because I'll never run out of things to do."

In addition to continuing teaching at Western, Bonnan said he hopes to write a book about vertebrate evolution that will inspire future generations of scientists - especially kids like himself, who faced many naysayers.

"My parents always encouraged me," he said. "Without them, it would have very difficult ... People would always say 'You won't make any money' or 'Haven't we already found all the dinosaurs?'"