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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!



Close of week 2

Haven’t seen the undergrads this happy yet, must mean they are packng up to head home.

It’s been hot and extraordinarily dry in Utah the past two weeks as we’ve worked to collect all the bones from our two quarries.  We’ve done a fair bit of prospecting too and from the look of the team’s clothes, folks are wearing thin.

Yesterday we finished up at the new orodromine site (MiniTroll) and the students remediated the quarry to look like the original hillside. This morning they packed up and headed to the airport for a flight home. Our second team arrived today and they’ll stay with us for the final two weeks (well most of them anyway). We’ve more work to do at the Last Chance quarry. The ones are diving steeply into the site and thus the backwall gets higher and higher. Presently the fossils are resting under about 7 feet of hillside. Most of which we have removed, but alas, since they are still getting deeper, that number is likely to go higher. We’ve decided to put in a few more days at the site before heading off to prospect further south and we’ll hit some very difficult to access outcrop here before we leave to ensure we haven’t missed any amazing finds up on the Cliffs of Insanity.  All in all, it should be a stellar time.

Now that the students are safely on their way and B team is arriving, Lisa and I can take a moments to chill.

Boiling. Literally

Today we surface collected from a new site that a member of the crew found on an evening prospecting trip a few days ago. Now a barren wasteland, it once represented a place where the Cretaceous river flooded its bank, spilling sediment and bone across the surface. It’s quite a lengthy layer of bone, around 50 meters long and it took half a day to get a grid set up, particularly around the huge sandstone boulders peppering the hills.

We collected the bone from the surface and dug a few test pits to evaluate the quality of bone and the types of animals preserved. But honestly it’s been brutally hot here the past few days with heat indices around 113. And if you think the air temperature is high you should talk to one of the undergraduate students who commented today that the ground was too hot to sit on (well he actually put it in a different way…). Later when I put our acetone-based consolidants on some sediment surrounding a fossil bone it boiled on contact. Folks… the boiling point of acetone is around 133 degrees.  So yeah, with surface temps somewhere near 130 today, I guess we did boil in the quarry. Quite literally.

sitting at the quarry was not fun today.

Utah 2016 week 1

This year’s Utah field season started out a little simpler than normal. We typically run 4 quarries simultaneously; however, this year we have only two main excavation sites: MiniTroll and Last Chance.  I stumbled upon Last Chance in the last couple of days of the 2015 field season and was able to collect some tail vertebrae and a bit of the foot before closing down for the season. Anxious to return and see if more of this little guy awaited inside the hill, it was a very long year until we arrived last week to open the quarry. Small dinosaur remains are rare generally, so any bits of this critter are worth going after tour de force.

The first day we opened a 12 foot wide quarry but in the days since it’s obvious that all the bone is in a narrow 18 inch strip heading diagonally into the hill. Excavation is therefore slow, as only two people can crowd into the bone horizon. Still, more of the tail and spine have turned up and things look good for more bone this week. Fingers crossed.

MiniTroll is now a decent sized quarry and more vertebrae from the spine have turned up. We are hoping to have all the bone removed in the next couple of days and close down the site soon. MiniTroll may turn out to be one of the most complete skeletons we have excavated here. Only time and more prep will tell.

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.

Rocks on Rocks on Rocks

Today was full of a lot of things, including steep hills, slippery rocks, and a lot of falling. But it was also full of amazing views and lots of croc and theropod teeth. Once we made it to the site, we were able to do some prospecting and most of us were able to collect some teeth and bones on the surface that had been exposed from erosion, before venturing out to find new sites. I haven’t felt this tired in a long time, but it was so worth it to be able to hike through the millions of years of rock formations and to be able to be able to collect fossils I hadn’t seen yet! 

Perks of Suicide Hill

It’s not ideal when it rains in the field, but the rainbows definitely make up for it! It’s impossible to not look forward to the digs with views this beautiful. So far at Suicide Hill, we’ve found a few caudal vertebrae, some ribs and their fragments, and some unidentified teeth. We still have a lot of progress to make too so hopefully much more to come!