On our last days in New Mexico, we hit another couple of promising basins, with little luck. Most of what we found was alive…
So we collected all the materials we could from our surface permits, took in the beautiful views, and packed up and headed north to prospect the Crevasse Canyon Formation before heading back to Raleigh.
Our short time hunting in the Crevasse Canyon Formation turned up a few promising things, including some beautiful dinosaur tracks. Unfortunately these are two big to fit in our gear, so we’ll just have to bring equipment to get some 3D models of these beauties next year!
Now we’ll take everything back to the lab and begin the long process of cleaning and preparing the fossils we recovered. Next year we’ll have some serious excavating to do on the sites we found, particularly Elk Run, from where we picked up a ton of bone from several individuals. Stay tuned to find out more on what we found on our trip to New Mexico this year and visit for more info on our next trip to Montana in June!
Once we’d found a basin with bone, we hit the area with a fine tooth comb, spending a week scouring the hillsides for more sites. In total we turned up a few fragmentary theropod bones, a very large upper leg bone in sandstone, some crocodile scutes, a few turtles, plant fossils, and one hillside with 42 vertebrae, limb and pelvic bones on the surface, and chunks of a very large, unusual looking turtle. Next year we’ll go back to several of these hills and open quarries. With any luck even better bones are still resting inside the hill.
Entering a new area to prospect for fossils is always tricky, but the rewards are worth the trials. Even after spending weeks preparing for the expedition, the work on the ground can only be tackled, well… on the ground. Once our team arrived in a new area, it takes time to figure out land ownership issues, find a workable camp spot, get to know which “roads” will take you within hiking distance to the rocks you want to explore, learn the weather patterns; find the sticky spots, instant rivers, and slick roads (usually by trial and error) and in the middle of that, learn the stratigraphy so you can find the right age rocks, and then of course, try like heck to find fossils in the time you have.
This Spring we’ve partnered with the White Mountain Dinosaur Exploration Center (WMDEC) in Springerville Arizona to hunt for Turonian dinosaurs in an area of eastern New Mexico that they’ve been working for decades. Several important species have been described including Nothronychus and Zuniceratops; however, dinosaurs of this age are still poorly known overall. For those of us trying to piece together dinosaur evolution in the Cretaceous, gaps in our knowledge like these can only be overcome by intense fieldwork and sheer luck. In other words, we can’t answer the scientific questions we want to unless we find more dinosaurs and that’s exactly what we’re out here to do. But hunting dinosaurs in this area isn’t easy. In comparison to many other areas we’ve worked, dinosaur bone here in the Moreno Hill Formation is rare.
Our team spent the first four days hiking about 10 miles a day on the outcrop prospecting for dinosaur fossils and found absolutely nothing. To make things worse, the weather has been near freezing every night and we’ve been hit by ice or frigid rain everyday on the hills.
Since we weren’t finding much bone on our first few prospecting days, WMDEC told us about a turtle they found that needed to be collected. We were happy to take a break from hitting the hills to collect that specimen in the afternoon.
Finally we hit the fourth basin in our target zone, with the exciting name of basin “D” on my map (not feeling very creative that day!). Our friends at WMDEC call this area Balloon Hoodoo and noted that they had found bone here years ago so we were hoping for a change of fate. In fact once we got in the basin there was a lot of bone in this area and we were thrilled to be finding some data at last! On just our first day in this basin we found many different sites, including some with beautiful bone. Now the trick will be finding where all of these skeletons are hiding in the hill. More to come!
On the very last day of prospecting, I turned up a few bones of a theropod dinosaur. The crew was in good spirits given how rare theropod remains are here and how significant they are to our research. The following day I further explored the site with the hopes that more bone would be hidden in the hill. Indeed I was able to expose a metatarsal and a few other fragments before being chased off by lightening storms. We collected a few bones from here, which will hopefully be enough to figure out what kind of theropod we’ve found. As heartbreaking as it is…. The rest of the bones (whatever there may or may not be here) will have to remain in the hillside while we secure excavation permits to come back next year.
In the meantime we’ve dubbed this site Last Chance Theopod, both for the stunning view across last chance desert and because we found this site on the last day of prospecting.
One of our goals this expedition is to find new dinosaur sites to excavate next year. After four unsuccessful days of hiking around southern Utah looking for sites, the team spent four days prospecting the Mussentuchit for new sites. Feeling mind-numbingly exhausted after hiking up and down steep hills for 4-5 miles a day for many days straight, I began to see the lack of luck taking a toll on the team. The only saving grace for prospecting for days in end without reward…, the outstanding views!!
Finally the team got a break yesterday when I spotted a limb bone of a theropod trailing down the hillside. Typically digging into the hill produces no trace, meaning the bone was isolated and entirely weathered out. This time there was actually bone sticking out of the hillside when I dug in. Today, I’ll be digging further into the hill with the hopes that more of the skeleton resides within.
The best and worst part of packaging up a carefully excavated block of dinosaur bones is knowing that the fossils are protected and ready for transport back to the museum. It’s a great feeling to know that these specimens are ready for preparation and study after weeks of digging and a dreadful anticipation knowing that you have to get them back to camp to load into the field vehicles before that can happen. Today we assembled a team to pull a 500 lb block of juvenile Eolambia bones (skull, pelvis, hindlimb, vertebrae) from Suicide Hill, up a mudstone hill, a sandstone cliff, and back to camp. All in all things went smoothly and we’ll be happy to see this one opened up in the prep lab. If you’re around, come watch it being prepared in the Paleontology Research Lab at the NRC.
On our first couple of days back in camp we were pummeled with massive storms… lightening that nearly took out a few of the crew as they crossed the high hills and then an awe inspiring hail storm. These videos say just about it all!