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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A sad day in the field this morning as our Field Methods course came to an end and our four undergraduates hopped a flight back to North Carolina. We’ve had an awesome crew these past two weeks and have made some great progress on our four dinosaur sites.
More and more bone is turning up at the Blue Bird Quarry (BBQ), formerly known as the sauropod site. Paul Brinkman and his team have been jacketing any and all bones that can be isolated from the main block. That block contains somewhere around 8 articulated sauropod vertebrae which we will try to pull in one extra large jacket. Today, I’ve been engineering a strategy to get that block (which should weight in at around 800 lbs) into the back of the truck… so far the plan involves a ramp imbedded with pipe as rollers, a bunch of cables, and a portable winch… stay tuned to see if we pull this off!
Big Daddy continues to yield more probable skull. We opened the site with a couple of days of picking, shoveling, and jackhammering, and now Lisa Herzog is leading the mapping and collection of Big Daddy bones. We led the students through their first jacket pull, a relatively minor effort moving about a 150 lb jacket a mile back to camp, down into a valley, up a steep hillside, over a sandstone cliff.
Suicide Hill contains the bones of a juvenile duckbill. The site is nice and flat, so not a lot of overburden to remove, which is nice… but many of the bones are imbedded in the top of a 6 inch sandstone block. We’ve been using the rock saw to cut those out and haul them back to camp. One of these jackets is going to be a real beastie to haul back to camp!
As for me, I’ve spent two quiet days deep in concentration collecting the surface exposed bones from Fortunate Son (our new plant-eating dinosaur site). The bones are quite jumbled together and need to be carefully separated. Because this site has the potential to yield a holotype specimen, it’s been slow and meticulous work. The view is incredible and I’ve been enjoying the work and the serenity of the landscape.
We’re ready and running! You can follow along with this year’s Utah expedition to the Mussentuchit Badlands (July 24th- August 24th) here at Expedition Live! with real time updates, photos, and blogs, and at #UTdinodig14 or @expeditionlive. You can also participate in live Skype sessions with the crew in the Daily Planet Theater at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences beginning Tuesday August 5th.
Wondering what it takes for a dozen people to live in the desert, miles and miles from civilization for 4 weeks? Watch the NC Museum of Natural Sciences pack our field vehicles for the three day drive to Utah below.