Bone Galore!

Sunday July 29-Wednesday August 1st

Prospecting takes patience.

(It also takes fearlessness, determination, fierce concentration, and a sharp eye, but whose counting?!)

I am often asked how paleontologists find fossils.  The truth is no doubt much less glamorous and sophisticated than most imagine.  To find fossils paleontologists walk to a place where the right age rocks are exposed and look around.  We often walk miles and miles of stark badlands in solitude, sometimes for days on end without finding anything at all (hence the patience part).

Sometimes prospecting requires climbing great heights. By early morning I found myself just a wee bit higher than I had expected to climb. Far off in the distance on the right of this photo is our base camp (look for the patch of trees!)

That may sound boring, but I find it incredibly restorative.  In fact, I look forward to it every year.  Here one is surrounded by earth only: barren rocks, rainbow colored hillsides, sweeping landscapes where one can see for miles unending. There are no phones, no emails, no demands.

So what keeps us going, in the heat, in the emptiness?  Around every corner could be the next big discovery, the fossil that changes everything.  So we keep climbing the hills and searching the ground for bits of fossilized bone.

How well does it go?  Our first day of prospecting we found five sites with bone eroding out of the hill and only one turned out to be worth its salt—a giant turtle shell and skeleton I stumbled across just when my anticipation was starting to fade for the day.  We collected what we could, but had to leave much of it in the ground because of its size.  We’ll return next year with a permit to excavate the turtle and bring it back to the museum to be prepared.

The remains of a two foot long fossilized turtle peek out of the hill at me.

Turtles are great, but we are here to find dinosaurs.  Hopefully tomorrow we’ll have better luck!

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