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.
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.
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!
Last year our best discovery came in a little package—Fortunate Son, the site of a new species of dinosaur. When a new dinosaur locality is found, our permits allow us to explore the extent of the bone preserved at the site over only a small area—about one square meter. We collect what we can from the surface and try to figure out just how much of the skeleton may be preserved and over how big an area. But the truth is, there is no real way to know until you cut a quarry into the hill. Luckily for us the bones of Fortunate Son were densely packed in the hillside and we collected over thirty bones from that single meter area under our surface collecting permit last year.
A year later, armed with an excavation permit, we are finally able to put our wonderings to rest. Yesterday, three of us we spent the day picking and shoveling out a quarry face at Fortunate Son. This involves quickly removing all the overburden (rock layers that overly the bone layer), so we can get closer to the bones before we break into fine tools. It is a bit unfortunate that a large sandstone boulder is resting atop the main bone-bearing horizon at this site. We will likely need to find a way to move that boulder, and soon.
At any rate, now the fine work can begin here. It may be that very little bone is preserved at Fortunate Son and all that work was for naught. It may be that treasures await just under the quarry face we carved out yesterday. Only time, patience, and chisels will tell.
The crew arrived at the exit to camp after three days of driving from Raleigh. We knew we were in for a tough camp set up as we drove west through the San Rafael Swell, in the face of a dust storm and dark skies. After some serious mud-driving, and a couple of mirings (one of which left me stuck in the middle of a mud pit with bear feet), we made it to camp with just enough daylight to scramble up the shelters and our personal tents.
The following morning we gathered our gear and headed to two of our Mussentuchit localities. This year we have four intrepid undergraduates from NCSU along with us to learn the ropes as part of our Paleontological Field Methods course. It is always a joy to watch the new cohort scramble down the drab gray badlands that weather into “popcorn” and powder.
Our first query was to uncover Suicide Hill, the burial ground of a juvenile Eolambia (duck bill dinosaur). Here we spent a few hours picking drainage tunnels and shoveling off the sediment we had covered the site with at the end of the season. Almost immediately we found more bone and had to slow down. Suicide Hill is still quite a productive locality. So far the most interesting turn of events has been the sudden appearance of several theropod teeth near some of the bones…. a feeding site perhaps? Only time, maps, more excavation, and careful research will tell.
Later in the day we hiked another short jaunt over to Fortunate Son, the home of our new undescribed species of plant-eater. Last year we took 25 jackets or so out of a single square meter at this site. There were not bones left exposed here at the end of the season, but we are hopeful that there is a lot more in the ground here.
The following day we headed deeper in time into the Late Jurassic, to reopen our diplodocid (probably) sauropod site in the Morrison Formation 6 miles or so from our Cretaceous sites. This is an area we pulled nearly 3000 lbs of jackets out of last year. Its always gratifying to see that the site looks relatively “reclaimed” by the weather and undisturbed.
After several hours of overburden removal we uncovered some bones we left under a protective plaster jacket at the end of last season, when we didn’t have enough time to get them out of the quarry. More picking around with hand tools reveals at least one huge bone diving under that plaster jacket (a limb girdle element perhaps?… too soon to say). At any rate, BBQ is going to keep being a logistical challenge for years to come. Ah, sauropods.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
At the end of week 1, we’re still only half way there!
Excitement is brewing in the Paleontology Research Lab as we organize essentials for our month-long expedition to dig up a new species of plant eating dinosaurs in the Utah desert.
We’ll be blogging in real time during the expedition and you can follow our Twitter feed (@expeditionlive) for up-to-date, moment-by-moment connections with the team. We’ll also be live streaming back to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences Daily Planet Theater each week to talk to folks from our quarries. If your in the area, come talk to us! Tuesdays at 11 am EDT, starting July 21st!
Today we decided to hike the crew up to a new area for prospecting. To be frank, I wasn’t sure we could get up the cliff face, but as it turned out, a rockslide made it possible to get up to the top. My intrepid students were up for the trip (of course, they didn’t yet know what they were in for…)
We started the hike by heading up the canyon, where we found an awesome little abandoned rancher shack complete with mattress springs, and a broken down (literally) vehicle.
We then ascended to the first plateau on the climb, you can still see the blue Suburban parked at the base of the canyon in this shot.
Unfortunately for us, this was about halfway up the cliff side. The total ascent was 680 feet as marked by our GPS units and of course, once at the top, we then had to go down about halfway into the prospecting basin and climb up and down hills all day. Below is the next photo from the top of the ridge.
The Mussentuchit landscape was different here. More conglomerates and sandstones, perhaps more proximal to the sediment source at the time of deposition. If nothing else, higher energy deposition in many spots, which is bad for bone…
Prospecting did yield some cool stuff however, including a really nice microsite with loads of teeth.
Jared (a student at Appalachian State University in NC) found the tail vertebrae of a little plant eater with a couple of associated bones… perhaps a site for next year.