Tag Archives: dinosaurs

Wrapping Up

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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….

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Fossilized pycnodontid oysters litter the surface in this area.
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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.

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That’s all for now folks!

 

 

The Cliffs Close In

Our most difficult prospecting spots in this area are up in the Cliffs of Insanity, our term for a very steep section of outcrop that rises 1000 feet above Last Chance desert.  These beds are only accessible from the bottom in most areas and so it takes a fairly intense hike (long and sometimes treacherous) just to get to the prospecting area, let alone the hike up and down the steep hillsides in search of fossil bone.  The past few days we’ve had teams hunting for fossils in the Cliffs of Insanity and collecting from some sites.  We’ve also borne witness to the start of the rains and an end to the intense heat and dryness of the past two weeks. Although, the temperature drop is welcome, the storms have been intense, and dangerous for those of us up in the cliffs when the thunderheads roll in each afternoon.  It’s made for some scrambling out of the back country and a few muddy drives, not to mention some mucky crew members.

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The hike to the Cliffs of Insanity begins far below the red cliffs in the right of the photo… the outcrop we prospect is the rolling grey hills at the top of this rise.
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As is usual for our Utah expedition, the trucks and the crew are laden with mud.

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Meanwhile, the bone at Last Chance quarry continues, and continues to dive deeper.  We pulled out around 100 bones from this site and the overburden continued to rise as we went further into the hill.  We pulled our biggest jacket containing several dozen elements on the last day.  It was about a mile hike to the truck with this 250 lb jacket and the crew did well bringing her down the slopes safely.  We also had a bit of fun with summer movie madness, since the jacket reminded us of Slimer from Ghostbusters.  We didn’t manage to clear the entire quarry this year, and several croc bones turned up near the back wall, so we have at least two individuals here and will have to reopen the site next season.

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Last Chance quarry getting deeper and deeper.

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Slimer is all strapped up and ready to haul.

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With our Cliffs of Insanity prospecting finished for the year and our two quarries closed down, we are headed south to hunt around in some new areas for the final week of our expedition.  Stay tuned for some amazing landscapes and hopefully, some great finds.

 

 

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.

Final Days

On our last days in New Mexico, we hit another couple of promising basins, with little luck. Most of what we found was alive…

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Hi friends

So we collected all the materials we could from our surface permits, took in the beautiful views, and packed up and headed north to prospect the Crevasse Canyon Formation before heading back to Raleigh.

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See ya next year Moreno Hill.

Our short time hunting in the Crevasse Canyon Formation turned up a few promising things, including some beautiful dinosaur tracks.  Unfortunately these are two big to fit in our gear, so we’ll just have to bring equipment to get some 3D models of these beauties next year!

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Tracks (on the left) with some crazy human for scale

Now we’ll take everything back to the lab and begin the long process of cleaning and preparing the fossils we recovered.  Next year we’ll have some serious excavating to do on the sites we found, particularly Elk Run, from where we picked up a ton of bone from several individuals.  Stay tuned to find out more on what we found on our trip to New Mexico this year and visit for more info on our next trip to Montana in June!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Basin That Keeps On Giving

Once we’d found a basin with bone, we hit the area with a fine tooth comb, spending a week scouring the hillsides for more sites. In total we turned up a few fragmentary theropod bones, a very large upper leg bone in sandstone, some crocodile scutes, a few turtles, plant fossils, and one hillside with 42 vertebrae, limb and pelvic bones on the surface, and chunks of a very large, unusual looking turtle.  Next year we’ll go back to several of these hills and open quarries.  With any luck even better bones are still resting inside the hill.

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It’s like Christmas, a vertebrae on the surface every few minutes
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Excavating an upside down turtle
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Cretaceous croc osteoderms (skin bones)
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Petrified wood abounds here

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