On our last day of prospecting we hit the jackpot, an area where you could hardly walk without stepping on bone. Here we marked several sites that we will return to next year for full excavations. One in particular had me jumping up and down, a new small theropod species. So what does a dinosaur look like when it is found… not much.
This particular pile of fossil rubble, is all that is left of a skeleton of Eolambia. When we find fossil bone eroding out of a hillside when we are prospecting, we are allotted some room to poke around. Here, Kate, a graduate student at NCSU investigates whether there is more bone in the hill.
In addition to the new theropod, we found several other sites perched on the side of some beautiful scenery.
(It also takes fearlessness, determination, fierce concentration, and a sharp eye, but whose counting?!)
I am often asked how paleontologists find fossils. The truth is no doubt much less glamorous and sophisticated than most imagine. To find fossils paleontologists walk to a place where the right age rocks are exposed and look around. We often walk miles and miles of stark badlands in solitude, sometimes for days on end without finding anything at all (hence the patience part).
That may sound boring, but I find it incredibly restorative. In fact, I look forward to it every year. Here one is surrounded by earth only: barren rocks, rainbow colored hillsides, sweeping landscapes where one can see for miles unending. There are no phones, no emails, no demands.
So what keeps us going, in the heat, in the emptiness? Around every corner could be the next big discovery, the fossil that changes everything. So we keep climbing the hills and searching the ground for bits of fossilized bone.
How well does it go? Our first day of prospecting we found five sites with bone eroding out of the hill and only one turned out to be worth its salt—a giant turtle shell and skeleton I stumbled across just when my anticipation was starting to fade for the day. We collected what we could, but had to leave much of it in the ground because of its size. We’ll return next year with a permit to excavate the turtle and bring it back to the museum to be prepared.
Turtles are great, but we are here to find dinosaurs. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll have better luck!
After two and a half days of driving we finally arrived at ground zero—the drab grey, stark bare badlands of the Mussentuchit Member (pronounced “musn’t touch it”) of the Cedar Mountain Formation. We exited the highway and began trekking along the jeep trail searching for a campsite near uncharted areas of outcrop. Forty-five minutes later we found our path blocked by a mostly dried up river channel. Unfortunately “mostly” dry out here isn’t often dry enough. The mud that remained was impassable, akin to driving on olive oil.
With that we turned back and tried a different route. Luckily we found a fantastic campsite a little while later.
We had just hopped out of the vehicles and begun unpacking our gear when the wind kicked up… and I mean kicked up. We scrambled to unpack our kitchen shelters but raising the tents in the wind was a struggle, even for six people. Barely had we gotten those up and staked when the rain started. Fearing several hours of rain, we ran around like ants raising our personal tents, some with more success than others.
Damp, stressed, and exhausted we clambered under the kitchen shelters to wait out the rain. We had planned a special dinner of fry bread tacos and I wasn’t ready to give up so I tried frying the dough in the rain. Bad idea. I whipped out a few fry breads and then the pan lit up in flames. After that we got smart and held up a plastic bin top over the pan to keep the rain out.
Inaugural field dinner in our bellies we decided to prospect the hill behind our camp. I figured it would be a while before I had some bone to show the students and volunteers, but I was wrong. We hit bone right at the bottom of the hillside. Tracing it up the hill we tried to determine the source. That is, until the thunder…
Welcome to the Feathered Dinosaur Death Pit Expedition 2012!
After several long months getting the new Paleontology & Geology Research Laboratory up and running at the Nature Research Center, the paleo team is itching to get out of town.
We’ve purchased all our necessary supplies, plaster, shovels, tarps, glue… the list goes on and on. In fact, we’ve got two Chevy Suburban’s stuffed full of field gear.
And now it’s finally time. Time to dig something up, which technically, is what we do best.
Tomorrow we’ll head out on a three-week expedition to hunt for dinosaurs and ancient crocodiles in the heart of the Utah desert. The first week of our expedition will be scouring a series of Early Cretaceous badlands for new fossil localities (a process termed prospecting). This part of the trip mostly involves identifying good sites to dig up next year.
After that, we’ll head over to the Crystal Geyser Dinosaur Quarry (or what I affectionately call the Feathered Dinosaur Death Pit). On this spot 125 million years ago hundreds of individuals of the bird-like dinosaur Falcariusutahensis died and were entombed in a single mass grave. We’ll spend about two weeks digging here and hopefully collecting many, many bones of Falcarius to bring back to the lab for preparation and research. You can learn more about the Crystal Geyser Quarry by visiting www.rockethub.com and searching for “dinosaur death pit.” You can also sign up for rewards like a phone call from the quarry or a replica of a Falcarius claw, dug up during our upcoming expedition.
We’ll blogging as often as we can, so come back to read more about how the expedition is going.