Category Archives: Field Blog

The Fallen Skull

This year our Montana expedition could be classified as a grab and dash operation.  Having discovered a what appeared to be a Triceratops prorsus skull in 2016, and explored with a few test pits in 2017, we returned this year with permit in hand to determine just how good the Triceratops site is.  Turns out the skull is every paleontologists dream, it appears to be a complete skull nose to frill with no pre- or post burial damage to speak of and potentially some distortion on one side.

Since only a tiny portion of the total skull had been exposed on the surface when I stumbled upon it two summers ago (just 3” of frill margin exposed, the very edge!) and the rest of the skull was completely buried beneath sediment, the entire specimen was completely undamaged by modern erosion.  Moreover, the skull is entombed in sandstone, which preserves fossils in three dimensions, so there is less distortion than one would find in a fossil preserved in mudstone. Our number one goal this trip is simple, quarry clean and quickly, and get this beauty packaged up for transport via helicopter in just ten days’ time.  Two days of driving and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences will have its first Triceratops skull for exhibition and study.

Triceratops skull in side view after a few days of quarrying.

We started day 1 by opening a quarry, digging through the overburden down to the bone layer–a full day of picking and shoveling. As we dug down through the layers, we noticed a slick-n-side revealing itself, a smooth sloping surface cutting directly through the middle of our quarry near the edge of the skull.  It kept growing, eventually becoming over a meter in height and we then determined it was a fault and that the sediment layers entombing the Triceratops skull had dropped about a meter relative to the bone layers behind.  This was great news as it meant to reach the rest of the bone layer we didn’t have to dig all the way down to the level of the skull, and that if present, the bones at the back of the quarry would be a meter higher up.

A fault reveals itself (smooth surface) behind the skull.  The skull dropped about a meter relative to the rest of the bone layer (to the right of image).

Just as we were trenching around the backside of the skull, we uncovered a gorgeous quadrate (bone from the back of the skull connecting the skull to the lower jaw).  Of course, it was resting directly in our trench (the most common law of quarrying).  Nonetheless, it is a real beauty with perfect undamaged margins of fine, thin bone.  This is truly a gorgeous specimen.

Surprise!  There’s a quadrate in our trench!
Some lovely leaf impressions underneath the skull.

Putting Deep Eddy to Rest

contemplating the rest of the morning hike from the Black Gate…
almost there!

As the team continued the long hike in and out of Deep Eddy, we were rewarded with the discovery of more eggs within the quarry.  Since it was 3-4 hrs of hiking in and out a day, we spent as much time as possible at the site, leading to some hikes where we were racing the sunset to get back to camp before dark…

sometimes we made it…
sometimes we didn’t!

But finding dino eggs has a way of keeping up team spirits.


The site itself continued to be a bruiser.  The eggs were buried in incredibly hard mudstone, which  meant we had to use serious tools during the excavation.  Yet the eggshell was only a few millimeters thick so any impact on the fossils could be major.  With this in mind, we kept our distance from the fossils, slowly chipping away at the mudstone and when discovering an egg, moving around it leaving it buried within the rock so the preparators can uncover the eggshell with microscopes in the lab.


Eventually we’d exposed a portion of at least six eggs, winding our way around a large block.  Once we’d mapped all the eggs and fragments, preparations for the plaster jacket began.



Deep Eddy really did exceed our expectations. I had hoped for one or two more eggs, but it seems as if we have quite a few (at least seven) within our jacket.  For now, she rests buried back into the hillside deep in the Cliffs of Insanity until we can raise enough funds to get a helicopter to lift her to the truck for transport to the museum.  We can’t wait to see what what we did all that work for!


Team Deep Eddy minus photographer Terry Gates and Dr. M. Ryan King (already departed) at the end of 2017 season




Deep Eddy Begins Again

After splitting off from the CGQ crew, Deep Eddy team was excited to return to our best site from last year – a dinosaur egg site.  We weren’t excited about the hike, which was as bad as we remembered…  3 miles up and down steep, mostly marine shale cliffs, and ankle breaking basalt boulder fields.  The first day in was the most brutal, each team member packing in 50-70 lbs of gear including two rock saws, several gallons of fuel, some 50 liters of water, crack hammers, etc… When we finally sat down at the site it was a great moment.

Almost there, just one last drop


Deep Eddy Team Day 1

Then of course, picking and shoveling the day away to clear the bone-bearing horizon for quarrying.  The mudstone here is particularly hard, hence the saws, but we made good progress with the weathered upper surface.  A few interesting things turned up right away here, including an unusual layer of plant material spanning a meter near the east side of the quarry and some evidence of roots on the (former) bank above the plant layer, indicating a tree or shrub once lived a happy life here in the Late Cretaceous.

Team member and team sedimentologist Dr. Ryan Tucker collects some of the cm thick plant layer
Dark bifurcating lines are what we interpret as a Cretaceous root system

On the second day one of our team members decided to brave the washed out jeep train with his truck, which was outfitted for the trail as opposed to our museum vehicles, which were decidedly not up to task.  So for the next few days we were able to shave two miles total off the hike by catching a lift up the first big hill, and I’ve got to tell you we were really grateful for that!

DE drive.jpg
Believe it or not, this is the best part of the “road”

The next few days the hiking and the quarrying continued.  We found another complete egg, taking our total to three so far, and a lot of large egg fragments.  the best is yet to come (we hope!) because we are just now moving into the area behind our complete eggs from last year’s digging.

Deep Eddy team, crack hammering away!

As usual internet service is nonexistant out here, so look for the next post next week when we need to resupply!  Until then, wake up to a Mussentuchit sunrise at our campsite.  More soon…

A red sunrise… think it will rain today?





Setting up and splitting up in Utah

Our full team of 11 stared out the Utah expedition with two days of picking and shoveling at the famed Crystal Geyser Quarry (CGQ), tomb of an estimated 300 Falcarius utahensis skeletons.  I had worked the CGQ for five years during my graduate work and at the end of that time we had just begun hitting an area of the quarry where the youngest individual discovered (aged 1-2 yrs) was buried.  That same area also housed some of the best preserved materials from the site (although not the holotype braincase!).  In the years since, we had been working the alternate side of the hill periodically, but this year, with permission from the BLM, we reopened the original quarry in search of better specimens.  This meant removing 1.5 meters of carbonate lenses above the bone bearing horizon.  With just two days we managed to clear a 4 x 3 meter area for the CGQ team to excavate during the 2 week expedition.

Picking away at the overburden at the CGQ in 105 degree heat

CGQ is next to a beautiful, but dang hot, campsite in the Morrison Formation badlands.  The dark maroon hills surrounding camp radiate the days heat back on the crew all night, meaning sometimes the temperature doesn’t drop into the 80s until early in the morning. Nonetheless, the sunsets are some of the most spectacular and there is a river nearby when the mid-day temps soar into the 100s.

The Morrison Formation badlands surround our camp

After opening the site, the NCMNS team split into two, the crazy half of of the crew heading west across the Swell into an area of the desert we call the Cliffs of Insanity.  Here we’ve been doing some extremely rugged prospecting in the Mussentuchit Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation for four years.  Last year, a crew member found an extraordinary site and we needed some hardy souls willing to do the hike for a couple of weeks. Next up… meet the site we call Deep Eddy…









Feet On The Ground: The Menefee

After a trying time in the Crevasse Canyon Formation, we had high hopes for more abundant fossils in the Menefee.  This was our first time prospecting this strata but we had teamed up with Andy Heckert and his summer students from Appalachian State University to check out some sites that Andy had found several years ago.  As usual our first day was inspiring but also a bit overwhelming.  Looking out over the expanse of Menefee exposure, it felt like one could spend a lifetime out here prospecting…

Menefee exposures go on and on…

Unlike the Crevasse Canyon, we found bone all over the place on day one out here, but much of it was encased in nodules. In most cases, mineral growth had invaded the bone, changing it’s structure.  We pulled a partial leg in decent condition before heading up section to find better preserved materials.

exposed digits from a dinosaur limb

Turned out looking in the younger part of the formation was a good idea.  The next day we found a fruitful basin with a lot of exposed bone, a decent turtle preserved in a sandstone cliff face, and not too far from there, a couple of good sites with multiple dinosaur bones.

This is what it looks like to find a turtle in a cliff. The shell in cross-section is sticking out just above Lisa’s right arm
Although a portion of the shell was lost due to erosion of the cliff face, as we chiseled the sandstone from around it, a pretty good carapace began to emerge.
why, I ask, does our most promising dinosaur site have to be found under 15 feet of this….?

We spent about 10 days in the Menefee prospecting and surface collecting from various sites.  Again the abundance of tracks, both dinosaur, croc, and turtle kept us fairly busy. We were fortunate to find a natural cast of an enormous croc track on the under surface of a sandstone lens bearing pad and scale impressions. It turned out to be a tricky but quick collect as we undercut the block, capped it with plaster, and let it drop to the ground (thankfully, not on any members of the team…) into a rimmed depression we devised.

stabilizing the croc track before work begins

We had our fair share of injuries and illnesses this trip with altitude sickness, falls, and even kidney stones and a lot of long, back-to-back days of wandering around solo prospecting, which leads to some interesting bouts of creativity.

While Lisa was inventing camp mascots, I tried my hand at a desert snowman…

Hi Hank
not bad!

Although our fossil finds were few and far between, there was an abundance of wildlife discoveries including several close encounters with rattlesnakes!

P1070573 (1)
Rattlers didn’t seem bothered much by our traipsing around


At the end of our season in the Menefee, we headed further south to explore the northernmost exposures of the Moreno Hill.  Here we found nearly nothing for days aside from some microsites and a single iguanodontipodid track.  Still, we had found enough promising localities this year and last to return in 2018 for a fruitful season. Even if it does involve a week of jackhammering through a sandstone cliff to get at the bones.

Next up….  Montana!






Kicking off in New Mexico

Long days and poor cellular service prevented us from blogging in real time during our first expedition of 2017 to Upper Cretaceous formations in northwest New Mexico.  We were able to keep up on Twitter though, so for the expedition play-by-play, check out #NMdinodig17 @expeditionlive.

Still… in the few days after Montana and before heading out to Utah this summer, I thought it’d be a good time to catch you up on how things went.

Last year we kicked off our pilot expedition to the Moreno Hill and Crevasse Canyon formations, strata that span a key, underrepresented interval in the fossil record of dinosaur evolution on the North American continent.  Finding fossils in the Moreno Hill Formation isn’t easy and we spent two weeks, prospecting 8-10 miles a day, with little to show for it last season.  We did find a productive basin near the end of our trip with fossilized turtles, a large croc osteoderm, a lot of random dinosaur bone, and one intriguing locality with over 40 ornithischian vertebrae exposed on the surface (Elk Run).

This year we hoped to open excavations at Elk Run, but our permits were not approved in time so… instead of excavating there, we continued to prospect for productive new areas in northwest New Mexico.  We were particularly interested in the Coniacian-Santonian aged Crevasse Canyon Formation and spent about four days hunting around in fairly good exposures.  The first two nights we woke up to snow (some of us with our tents collapsed onto our faces…), but soon enough things began to warm up.

there’s nothing like waking up to snow in the desert

We could find only a single published record of dinosaur bone recovered from the Crevasse Canyon–a partial duckbill dinosaur jaw bone. Thus we knew there was potential, but also, that the Crevasse Canyon would make us work for it.  We didn’t have a great deal of luck this year but we begin finding some dinosaur bone on the last couple of days, and ultimately one nice limb bone that continued into the hill.

A bit of limb bone on the surface

We also found a great leaf locality, and a ton of dinosaur tracks, which are all over the Crevasse Canyon.  I literally pitched my tent on a track horizon in camp and tracks could be found just about everywhere we wandered.

a little poking around my tent and voila! track casts

We wrapped up this part of the trip by revisiting a cool ornithopod dinosaur track site I found last year.  This time we brought geology undergraduates from Wake Tech, as part of our National Science Foundation GEOPATH award.  Here we documented the site, took photographs to create a photogrammetric model, and evaluated the track morphology and number of trackways preserved.  We’ll be presenting this research at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Seattle.

Wake Tech student Katie Berry examines the track block

After wrapping up in the Crevasse Canyon we packed up camp and headed north to hunt around in the Menefee Formation.


Wrapping Up

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….

Fossilized pycnodontid oysters litter the surface in this area.
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.

That’s all for now folks!