Category Archives: Dinos on the Edge

Dinosaur in a Cliff II

After two weeks of sawing and jackhammering, the team has cleared the sandstone ledge from above the quarry face.  This is always the moment when the real excitement begins… what’s actually buried here?  Something amazing?  Just a few ribs or frags?  Our first exposed elements consist of a limb bone and several ribs.  The best parts are the patches of skin impressions scattered here and there among the bones.

NCSU graduate student Tyler Bridges collects skin impression samples for analysis. Several ribs are exposed in the foreground.

Exposed skin impressions were one of the reasons we went after the specimen, despite the cliff.  Where there’s skin, there’s usually good preservation, and good preservation means there’s likely to be good scientific data.  Much remains to be learned about skin preservation in the fossil record, which is a line of research being pursued by several NCSU graduate students.  From a taxonomists perspective, the dinosaurs of this age and region are important.  Most of them no doubt represent new species.


As the summer excavations draw to a close, we hope to learn more about which bones were recovered.  The fruits of this summer will be prepared in the CNCC lab over the coming year.  We’ll keep you posted on the research.  In the meantime, the team is happy to be done with the jackhammer until next time!

Dinosaur in a Cliff

Removing the bones of long dead animals from their rocky tombs is never an easy task, but sometimes the magnitude of what we’re doing really hits home.  On May 24th we met up with our friends and colleagues at Colorado Northern Community College (CNCC) to excavate a rather difficult site: a duck bill dinosaur buried in the middle of a 20 foot channel sandstone in the Upper Cretaceous Mesa Verde Group.  We teamed up with CNCC to lend them a helping hand since they had a summer field course they wanted to run at this site and in order for the students to actually dig up bone, we had to first plow through a 10 foot ledge of sandstone overburden.

The white plaster caps mark the level where the dinosaur bones are buried.  First job, clear all the sandstone on top!
The white plaster caps mark the level where the dinosaur bones are buried. First job, clear all the sandstone on top!

Typically removing overburden only requires hand tools (picks and shovels).  Sometimes we speed things up with a jackhammer, especially when the surrounding matrix gets too hard to pick through.  With sandstone, there aren’t many options, power tools are the only real way to go.  In this case, we used a jackhammer to plow through the ledge about 1-2 feet per day.

Even with a jackhammer, it was SLOW going.
Even with a jackhammer, it was SLOW going.

The other useful technique, especially when we get closer to the bone bearing layer, is using a rock saw to cut blocks and chiseling or picking them out.  This reduces the vibration on the bone as we get closer.

The quarry face is dropping.
The quarry face is dropping.
Cut block and chisel method, working well just above the bone layer.
Cut block and chisel method, working well just above the bone layer.
The team and the quarry back wall at the end of week 1.
The team and the quarry back wall at the end of week 1.

At the end of week 1, we’re still only half way there!

River Crossing

Driving down from the top of the cliffs on the last day in the western canyon we were greeted by a a reminder… we were far from the first people to explore this rugged terrain.  Just on the other side of the river crossing, we spotted a series of pictographs, painted images left on the rock cliffs by the native americans who inhabited this area.  I couldn’t help but wonder from the artwork if this same spot has been the place to cross the river for hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years.

Three people and three canoes (below)… feel like crossing a river?

Celestial ghost

Tonight I started driving back to NC.  2000 miles alone in my truck.

Luckily, the world is full of any number of wonderful things to keep me occupied.

For instance,  tonight as I passed through Vail, Colorado I saw what might be the most beautiful moon rise of my life.  Without pictures I will try to use words.

The Rocky Mountains are amazing at anytime of the year, but especially while the leaves are changing.  Indeed, as I came up over the small summit at Vail, the mountain sides were draped in a soft fleece of aspens so golden that Jason would have traveled the world to steal this peak. Rising above all other rocks was a sheer wall of rock reflecting the pink glow of the setting sun.  And just above the grand sentinel were puffy cumulous clouds flirting me with rain, each colored the bright pink of the sun on top and dark purple below.  As with every sunset the lower light dimmed the sharpness of the world, leaving a drowsy impressionist hue to this majestic landscape.  Yet behind the clouds, an astronomical razor blade had cut a perfect circle in the dreamscape.  With edges as sharp as laser cut glass the moon cast its ghostly light.  All of the grey freckles were perfectly seen on the pure white lunar plains.  As I drove the Earth became jealous of the moon and wafted the mounting cotton candy clouds across the celestial ghost. 

Nephrtiti rock

We split the team today, me, Ryan, and his wife Tara going to prospect north of Green River.  Here the two are showing their excitement for finding fossils beneath Nephrtiti Rock.


The rocks we were in were deposited in ocean environments except for a small section.   Luckily in this small section we found a coal that contained a volcanic ash we will attempt to date the Neslen Formation.  Dating of these rocks has never been done so this date is really important.


Eventhough we did not really find fossils, we did find lots of cool homes and trails made by sea creatures such as shrimp.   Here is one example of the ancient homes.


Finally we finished the day with a beautiful sunset.


Personality test

Lindsay and I want to introduce everyone to a game we like to play here in the field.   “What’s that lichen?”

So below is a picture of some lichen that grows on rocks in the Utah desert.  Your job is to leave a comment about what you think it looks like.

Ready, set, go!!!