Two of the best parts of the southern Utah prospecting split of were the wildflowers and the incredible vistas. Fossils? Well, that turned out to be less incredible than we were hoping. Still on our fourth day of prospecting we turned up some good finds, including tons of turtle, a croc skeleton, and a claw from a new species of theropod.
After the last day of prospecting, the southern Utah team wrapped it up and headed back to central Utah to meet up with the rest of the crew. We hear told that several jackets are ready for the taking!
With things going great at our main Mussentuchit localities this year, and an abundance of crew, we decided to carve off a handful of our team and hunt for new dinosaur sites in southern Utah for three days. Our target area consists of poorly mapped Late Cretaceous sediments near Bryce Canyon National Park. Yesterday we did our first prospecting run and came across a few microsites containing croc, turtle, and fragmentary dino material. Today, we took it up a notch, deciding to trek down a 900 foot section from the top of the stunning Claron Formation, to sediments of the Kaiparowits and Wahweap formations below.
At the base of the canyon was a creek bed with a clear flowing stream. Fragments of the Claron Formation lining the creek bed, made for a beautiful site. We named it Rainbow Creek and sat for lunch under some pines before working up the energy to prospect the steep terrain in front of us.
The outcrop here was no picnic, in this image you may be able to make out two of the team clinging for dear life to a grey patch of sediment on the left side of the picture.
After scrambling around the hillsides for a few hours, we had very, very little to report, two croc teeth, a gar scale, a gastropod impression, a bit of eggshell, and some trace fossils. The best things we’ve seen on the prospecting trip so far were alive! We’ve stumbled on mule deer, pronghorn, gopher, prairie dogs, snakes, and some horny toads.
It was a tough and disappointing prospecting day. But that is how it goes. The best way to tell if an area is good for fossils is to get out, climb around, and look with your own eyes. With the news that no one had had much luck came the joy of the ascent 900 feet back up to the top of the plateau. The views here really were worth the climb, sore feet, sore shins, backs, lungs and all! Boy are we a tired crew tonight.
After days of clearing rock at Fortunate Son without a bone to be found anywhere, the crew was exuberant to radio me that they had uncovered three bones, including another limb element of this new species. We are thrilled to have more of the skeleton of this animal and it makes moving a that rock well worth the blisters!
Suicide Hill is turned out to be an interesting site. Lots of skull bones here, which is quite unusual. Also there’s this……we thought we had a single animal here but it seems as if we gave at least two individuals. Yesterday we uncovered three dentaries (lower jaw bones), which means we have more than one animal buried here. Other well preserved bones are here including bones of the pelvis.
One interesting pattern that is turning up here is a pile of theropod teeth on one area of the quarry. This includes one stellar discovery–a tyrannosauroid premaxillary tooth. Quite distinctive, this tooth is most similar to early tyrannosaur species from Asia at this time. Strengthening the hypothesis of faunal interchange between these continents at this time.
The team is desperate to find a skeleton of this new tyrannosaur species. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time!!
Last year our best discovery came in a little package—Fortunate Son, the site of a new species of dinosaur. When a new dinosaur locality is found, our permits allow us to explore the extent of the bone preserved at the site over only a small area—about one square meter. We collect what we can from the surface and try to figure out just how much of the skeleton may be preserved and over how big an area. But the truth is, there is no real way to know until you cut a quarry into the hill. Luckily for us the bones of Fortunate Son were densely packed in the hillside and we collected over thirty bones from that single meter area under our surface collecting permit last year.
A year later, armed with an excavation permit, we are finally able to put our wonderings to rest. Yesterday, three of us we spent the day picking and shoveling out a quarry face at Fortunate Son. This involves quickly removing all the overburden (rock layers that overly the bone layer), so we can get closer to the bones before we break into fine tools. It is a bit unfortunate that a large sandstone boulder is resting atop the main bone-bearing horizon at this site. We will likely need to find a way to move that boulder, and soon.
At any rate, now the fine work can begin here. It may be that very little bone is preserved at Fortunate Son and all that work was for naught. It may be that treasures await just under the quarry face we carved out yesterday. Only time, patience, and chisels will tell.
The crew arrived at the exit to camp after three days of driving from Raleigh. We knew we were in for a tough camp set up as we drove west through the San Rafael Swell, in the face of a dust storm and dark skies. After some serious mud-driving, and a couple of mirings (one of which left me stuck in the middle of a mud pit with bear feet), we made it to camp with just enough daylight to scramble up the shelters and our personal tents.
The following morning we gathered our gear and headed to two of our Mussentuchit localities. This year we have four intrepid undergraduates from NCSU along with us to learn the ropes as part of our Paleontological Field Methods course. It is always a joy to watch the new cohort scramble down the drab gray badlands that weather into “popcorn” and powder.
Our first query was to uncover Suicide Hill, the burial ground of a juvenile Eolambia (duck bill dinosaur). Here we spent a few hours picking drainage tunnels and shoveling off the sediment we had covered the site with at the end of the season. Almost immediately we found more bone and had to slow down. Suicide Hill is still quite a productive locality. So far the most interesting turn of events has been the sudden appearance of several theropod teeth near some of the bones…. a feeding site perhaps? Only time, maps, more excavation, and careful research will tell.
Later in the day we hiked another short jaunt over to Fortunate Son, the home of our new undescribed species of plant-eater. Last year we took 25 jackets or so out of a single square meter at this site. There were not bones left exposed here at the end of the season, but we are hopeful that there is a lot more in the ground here.
The following day we headed deeper in time into the Late Jurassic, to reopen our diplodocid (probably) sauropod site in the Morrison Formation 6 miles or so from our Cretaceous sites. This is an area we pulled nearly 3000 lbs of jackets out of last year. Its always gratifying to see that the site looks relatively “reclaimed” by the weather and undisturbed.
After several hours of overburden removal we uncovered some bones we left under a protective plaster jacket at the end of last season, when we didn’t have enough time to get them out of the quarry. More picking around with hand tools reveals at least one huge bone diving under that plaster jacket (a limb girdle element perhaps?… too soon to say). At any rate, BBQ is going to keep being a logistical challenge for years to come. Ah, sauropods.