Category Archives: Field Blog

New Territory

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.

We keep coming back to the maps to figure out where we are and where we’re going next.
Sometimes the outcrop looks beautiful but … no fossil bone
The team huddles up in the cold

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.

Jacketing the turtle for transport
The turtle makes it back to camp

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!

Hiking out of the basin, whew!
Keith holds a chunck of dino leg bone he found today

Last Chance Theropod

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. 

View from Last Chance Theropod

Hiking Till Death Do Us Part

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!!

The colorful badlands of Jurassic and Cretaceous sediments

The best part of the hike ; what a view!
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. 

Khai scrambles up a precarious slope in search of bone.
At last, a bone horizon to explore.

Jacket Pulling Day

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.

Preparing the jacket of bones for transport.
Preparing the jacket of bones for transport.
Jacket pulling team, all smiles BEFORE the big pull.
Jacket pulling team, all smiles BEFORE the big pull.

Storms Greet Us Back In Camp

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!

Grape-sized hail anyone?
Grape-sized hail anyone?

Southern Utah Team Wraps Up

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.

Some finds from prospecting: turtle shell, petrified wood, a gastropod, and some bone fragments
Some finds from prospecting: turtle shell, petrified wood, a gastropod, and some bone fragments
Scouting new outcrop is always best from a high vantage point
Scouting new outcrop is always best from a high vantage point

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!

A theropod claw turns up on the last day of prospecting...
A theropod claw turns up on the last day of prospecting…
Saying goodbye to some beautiful prospecting
Saying goodbye to some beautiful prospecting



Southern Utah Team Split Off

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.

"Rainbow Creek"
“Rainbow Creek” dotted with rocks of the pink, white, orange, yellow, and gray Claron Formation

Fueling up before hitting the outcrop.
Fueling up before hitting the outcrop.

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.

Bucky and Chris cling to the grey outcrop on the left side of the image.
Bucky and Chris cling to the grey outcrop on the left side of the image.

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.

photo 2 copy

On our way to the outcrop, we drove by a whole field of prairie dogs, many of whom chirped at us.
On our way to the outcrop, we drove by a whole field of prairie dogs, many of whom chirped at us.

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.

Nearing the top of the plateau again, on the hike out... still a lot of hill above me.
Nearing the top of the plateau again, on the hike out… still a lot of hill above me.