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Digging Up Dinosaurs

Ten Years of Fossil Hunting in Utah

The hillsides in Utah where the Dinosaur Institute excavates Jurassic fossils.

It’s called a bone bed, probably because “dinosaur mass grave” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well. This particular one in Utah is in a layer of rock that is 150 million years old, placing it at the tail end of the Jurassic Period.

Strewn throughout this layer of rock are the remains of many different dinosaurs (and other reptiles) all jumbled together. Many of them belong to enormous long-necked herbivores called sauropods, but there are also theropods (relatives of the ever-popular T. rex), tank-like ankylosaurs, and ornithopods (relatives of duck-billed dinosaurs).

This pie chart shows the relative abundance of each type of dinosaur found at this particular site. As you can see by the green and blue sections, many of the dinosaurs are of the enormous, long-necked variety. Illustration by Stephanie Abramowicz.

The team first came to this site in 2007 on a prospecting trip, exploring miles of hillsides looking for signs of fossils. “Like all excavations, it began with the tip of a bone,” said Dinosaur Institute Director Luis Chiappe. After spotting a bone poking out of the side of a hill, the team began digging, and digging, and digging.

At the start of another day of digging, Dinosaur Institute Director Luis Chiappe (front right) stands in the quarry where the team has been excavating since 2007.

Dinosaur Institute researchers and volunteers have been returning to this site for the last 10 years, slowly but surely chipping away at the rock to liberate fossil after fossil from the “Gnatalie quarry” — named after the gnats that plagued the team in past years.

But “chipping” makes this work sound easy, when it’s anything but. The fossilized remains of these ancient animals are encased in hard rock and clay, not dirt that is easily brushed away. These sediments have been hugging dinosaur bones for 150 million years; they’re not giving them up without a fight.

That fight involves some machinery — like jackhammers and air guns that dud-dud-dud-dud into the rock, shaking the people who wield them. Then there are ever-decreasing sizes of hammers and chisels, all the way down to dental picks.

The site is so rich with fossils that it’s a logistical challenge getting any of them out. Digging around one large find invariably leads to the discovery of several more, requiring the team to slow down and work around each one. It’s like playing a never ending game of Jurassic Battleship.

A typical Gnatalie quarry occurrence: when digging around the large tibia in the middle of the photo, Dinosaur Institute volunteers found three more fossils in the immediate area.

“The minute you start trenching, you find wonderful things,” said Erika Canola, paleontological preparator in the Dinosaur Institute. “Every year there are surprises!”

Some fossils from this site in Utah are currently on display in the Dinosaur Hall, like this portion of a sauropod backbone. Notice the white plaster border — a souvenir from its excavation.

To remove the fossils without damaging them, the team drips glue onto the bones to stabilize them and applies a layer of plaster over and around them. These plaster “jackets” insulate the fossils for safe transport back to the Museum, where researchers and volunteers can prepare them in a laboratory — removing plaster and surrounding sediments so the bones can be identified, cataloged, and digitized.

Over the last decade, 405 plaster packages of fossils have been pulled from the quarry, and so far 338 of them have been prepared in the lab. And of those, 113 bones have been digitized for researchers around the world to access.

What will the next 10 years hold for this team of intrepid paleontologists?

 

 

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