Tag Archives: paleontology

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.

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

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.

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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.


The quarry that won’t quit

Fortunate Son’s luck has not run out!

After digging through nearly a meter of nothing, Haviv came across a long bone that we think may be the tibia, or lower leg bone.

Then as we were clearing out the space next to said possible tibia, guess who decided to join the holotype party…the quadrate!!

Now the skull of this new critter is even more complete.  If Fortunate Son can squeeze a few more sweet rolls from the diçe hopefully we can get more of the pretty beast.

Haviv, an undergraduate at Appalachian State University holds a plaster jacket with newly excavated bones from our new plant eating dinosaur species.

A Quarry Is Born

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.

Fortunate Son, before...
Fortunate Son, before…

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.

Fortunate Son, after.
Fortunate Son, after.

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.