All posts by Lindsay E Zanno

Wrapping Up

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Our second prospecting area was near Muddy River, beautiful, but buggy.

After three weeks, we closed our active quarries, left our main field area, and headed somewhere new to search for promising areas further south.  If our primary areas seems remote, this new place was really isolated.  Our base camp was approximately 50 miles from anything with no cellular service, which is why we had to cancel our last Skype session with the museum and why, this blog comes to you after the end of our trip.

To reach camp we drove up a wash that cut into the badlands forming a steep walled canyon in certain areas.  The road is prone to flash flooding, making our drive in and out of camp an ever-interesting “who knows?” And we had to drive over long stretches of road that would turn to impassibly slick muck with just a bit of rain.  Thus, we tried to just stay put and prospect near camp, hoping it wouldn’t rain the day of or the day before our scheduled departure.

Temperatures here were more extreme than our previous camp and the team struggled to prospect all day in the sweltering heat.  Despite our best efforts, and despite ten boots on the ground for several days, we found only a few scraps of fossil bone here and not enough to warrant an excavation.  Some folks might view this as a failure, but it’s just part of the process for paleontologists.  Someone has to expend the effort and the funds to go to places where there might be good fossils and search.  Sometimes that means you find amazing things and others will come back to those same areas for decades, sometimes it means you’ve just “cleared” the area for future scientists.  I’d say we pretty much “cleared” these badlands.  Fortunately, we found bone in some other areas nearby to hear (about a two-hour drive) and it’s likely we’ll return and set up camp a bit closer to the promising area in future years.

There was some amazing stratigraphy here and a great marker bed full of marine oysters. so if you tired of hiking for hours on end in the heat finding absolutely no fossil dinosaur bone, you could sit and search for pycnodontid oysters or Ptychodus (hybodontiform) shark teeth.  Or bear prints….

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Fossilized pycnodontid oysters litter the surface in this area.
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Surprise! A bear and I had the same idea for a hiking route down the Muddy River this afternoon.

All in all, it’s been a great, and long field season for us with trips to New Mexico, Montana, and a few places in Utah between April and August of 2016 and we’ve made some great discoveries.  Check in with our Zanno Lab news page, our research blog, and our Twitter feed for real time research and preparation updates until next year’s field season.

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That’s all for now folks!

 

 

The Cliffs Close In

Our most difficult prospecting spots in this area are up in the Cliffs of Insanity, our term for a very steep section of outcrop that rises 1000 feet above Last Chance desert.  These beds are only accessible from the bottom in most areas and so it takes a fairly intense hike (long and sometimes treacherous) just to get to the prospecting area, let alone the hike up and down the steep hillsides in search of fossil bone.  The past few days we’ve had teams hunting for fossils in the Cliffs of Insanity and collecting from some sites.  We’ve also borne witness to the start of the rains and an end to the intense heat and dryness of the past two weeks. Although, the temperature drop is welcome, the storms have been intense, and dangerous for those of us up in the cliffs when the thunderheads roll in each afternoon.  It’s made for some scrambling out of the back country and a few muddy drives, not to mention some mucky crew members.

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The hike to the Cliffs of Insanity begins far below the red cliffs in the right of the photo… the outcrop we prospect is the rolling grey hills at the top of this rise.
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As is usual for our Utah expedition, the trucks and the crew are laden with mud.

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Meanwhile, the bone at Last Chance quarry continues, and continues to dive deeper.  We pulled out around 100 bones from this site and the overburden continued to rise as we went further into the hill.  We pulled our biggest jacket containing several dozen elements on the last day.  It was about a mile hike to the truck with this 250 lb jacket and the crew did well bringing her down the slopes safely.  We also had a bit of fun with summer movie madness, since the jacket reminded us of Slimer from Ghostbusters.  We didn’t manage to clear the entire quarry this year, and several croc bones turned up near the back wall, so we have at least two individuals here and will have to reopen the site next season.

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Last Chance quarry getting deeper and deeper.

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Slimer is all strapped up and ready to haul.

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With our Cliffs of Insanity prospecting finished for the year and our two quarries closed down, we are headed south to hunt around in some new areas for the final week of our expedition.  Stay tuned for some amazing landscapes and hopefully, some great finds.

 

 

Close of week 2

Haven’t seen the undergrads this happy yet, must mean they are packng up to head home.

It’s been hot and extraordinarily dry in Utah the past two weeks as we’ve worked to collect all the bones from our two quarries.  We’ve done a fair bit of prospecting too and from the look of the team’s clothes, folks are wearing thin.

Yesterday we finished up at the new orodromine site (MiniTroll) and the students remediated the quarry to look like the original hillside. This morning they packed up and headed to the airport for a flight home. Our second team arrived today and they’ll stay with us for the final two weeks (well most of them anyway). We’ve more work to do at the Last Chance quarry. The ones are diving steeply into the site and thus the backwall gets higher and higher. Presently the fossils are resting under about 7 feet of hillside. Most of which we have removed, but alas, since they are still getting deeper, that number is likely to go higher. We’ve decided to put in a few more days at the site before heading off to prospect further south and we’ll hit some very difficult to access outcrop here before we leave to ensure we haven’t missed any amazing finds up on the Cliffs of Insanity.  All in all, it should be a stellar time.

Now that the students are safely on their way and B team is arriving, Lisa and I can take a moments to chill.

Boiling. Literally

Today we surface collected from a new site that a member of the crew found on an evening prospecting trip a few days ago. Now a barren wasteland, it once represented a place where the Cretaceous river flooded its bank, spilling sediment and bone across the surface. It’s quite a lengthy layer of bone, around 50 meters long and it took half a day to get a grid set up, particularly around the huge sandstone boulders peppering the hills.

We collected the bone from the surface and dug a few test pits to evaluate the quality of bone and the types of animals preserved. But honestly it’s been brutally hot here the past few days with heat indices around 113. And if you think the air temperature is high you should talk to one of the undergraduate students who commented today that the ground was too hot to sit on (well he actually put it in a different way…). Later when I put our acetone-based consolidants on some sediment surrounding a fossil bone it boiled on contact. Folks… the boiling point of acetone is around 133 degrees.  So yeah, with surface temps somewhere near 130 today, I guess we did boil in the quarry. Quite literally.

sitting at the quarry was not fun today.

Utah 2016 week 1

This year’s Utah field season started out a little simpler than normal. We typically run 4 quarries simultaneously; however, this year we have only two main excavation sites: MiniTroll and Last Chance.  I stumbled upon Last Chance in the last couple of days of the 2015 field season and was able to collect some tail vertebrae and a bit of the foot before closing down for the season. Anxious to return and see if more of this little guy awaited inside the hill, it was a very long year until we arrived last week to open the quarry. Small dinosaur remains are rare generally, so any bits of this critter are worth going after tour de force.

The first day we opened a 12 foot wide quarry but in the days since it’s obvious that all the bone is in a narrow 18 inch strip heading diagonally into the hill. Excavation is therefore slow, as only two people can crowd into the bone horizon. Still, more of the tail and spine have turned up and things look good for more bone this week. Fingers crossed.


MiniTroll is now a decent sized quarry and more vertebrae from the spine have turned up. We are hoping to have all the bone removed in the next couple of days and close down the site soon. MiniTroll may turn out to be one of the most complete skeletons we have excavated here. Only time and more prep will tell.

A Very Good Day

With time on our prospecting trip running out, we hit the hills early yesterday.  The ridge we hiked down had some great exposure and the area turned out to be littered with fossil bone.  Around every corner we found piles of Triceratops bone many of which had just been resting on the surface degrading for a long time.  Sometimes I’d stumble across a nice bone on the surface, but a little digging into the hill revealed it was just a lone bone, resting out in the Montana sunlight.

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This isolated bone was easy to spot, but ended up leading nowhere…

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Early in the morning I spotted a foot long thin ridge of bone protruding from a hillside well below where I was hiking.  I made my way down to check it out and noticed the distinctive triangular bones on the margin of a frill just peeking out.  Holding my breath a bit, I started peeling sediment off the bone, which continued improving in condition deeper into the hill.  It was a good sign!  Clearly there was a large portion of the frill diving into the overburden here.  Since we only have a prospecting permit, and could never take out a whole Triceratops skull without an excavation permit, I chose to stop digging there, consolidate and cap what was exposed.  It could be that this piece of frill is not attached to anything at all.  OR it could be that the entire skull is waiting just beneath the mudstone layers of that hillside.  We’ll only find out when we come back to excavate what we’ve found.

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Now that is a frill…. could the rest of the skull be under there also? With any luck it’s safely tucked in it’s Cretaceous grave.

More hiking brought more sites, including these huge eroding bones on the top of a butte that could be spotted from 100 meters away.  There were at least five bones exposed here and this is a site that will merit further excavating.

 

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This is a good one: amazing views and multiple bones.

At then end of the ridge there were some beautiful views including a broken down cabin in the valley.  But alas, this is clearly then end of this hike, time to head back to the hills behind to search for more bone.

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Spring rains make for beautiful hiking

 

 

 

The Not So Hellish Hell Creek

Our second day of prospecting was spectacular as we hiked amongst a rainbow of wildflowers.  There was no shortage of bone either. We spent a couple of hours collecting from a micro site (a sediment layer loaded with tiny bones and teeth). Here we collected fossils of many different species including croc osteoderms and teeth, different turtles, gar scales, and meat and plant eating dinosaurs.


Later we hiked further into the badlands and found several promising sites including at least two horned dinosaur localities, a possible theropod site, and tons of other sites we didn’t have enough time to dig into.



At the end of the day we made some friends including this awesome salamander!


It was a hot one yesterday and looks to be even hotter today! Still waiting for something special to turn up at the surface but who knows what’s hiding just under the surface at he sites we already found.