Dinosaur Hunting

The badlands of southeastern Utah, home to part of the
dinosaur-rich layer of rocks called the Morrison Formation

Utah 2009

utah expedition
The cache from the 2008 Utah expedition, prior to their transport back to Los Angeles. In the foreground are dinosaur footprint casts; behind them are plaster jackets of the sauropod nicknamed Gnatalie.
utah expedition
Post-doctoral fellow and 2008 expedition team member Sayaka Kawasaki next to a brachiosaur humerus.
Dinosaur Institute, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
This year’s expedition was planned for the spring to avoid gnats, and a core DI staff was joined by colleagues from Spain, Argentina, and New York’s American Museum of Natural History. This is a story about that expedition.

After lifting off the plaster caps from last year, excavators went to work on the new sauropod. Luis is particularly interested in the creature’s huge vertebral column for inclusion in the Museum’s new dinosaur hall.

This large new sauropod is not the expedition’s only focus, however. A separate arm of the team branched out to excavate one of this year’s new finds—an articulated sauropod tail, found several miles away.

The People

On these expeditions, everyone shares the hammer and chisel duty, but there are specialized roles. Doug Goodreau, the Dinosaur Institute Senior Preparator, is the crew chief, managing resources both human and non-human. He figures out who has what skills, how they can be teamed so those skills can be taught and shared, and all the logistics of equipment. Sometimes that means renting jackhammer or an air compressor. Sometimes that means driving into town and hiring a couple of guys to help with some lifting.

But there’s another side of Doug: He has a night job as a freelance embalmer, specializing in the reconstruction of severely traumatized human remains at mortuaries throughout L.A. So as the bones are extracted, Doug is also charged with using polymer-based glue to keep them together—strengthening the specimens on site so they can be transported safely.


Susan Russak started as an NHM docent in 2004. A few years after that, she began preparing fossils in the NHM paleo lab under the direction of Senior Preparator Doug Goudreau. She has participated in three consecutive field expeditions in Utah.

Dinosaur Institute, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Dinosaur Institute illustrator Stephanie Abramowicz maps the quarries. She runs strings over the dig pits north and south, east and west, from a high point called the datum. That mark that will be there when the team returns next year, and it will guide their resumed excavation. But back at the Museum, the maps will be used when the specimens are curated, articulated, and written about, so that paleontologists will know where the bones were positioned in relation to each other. Without Stephanie’s maps, the bones have no data, no context—they’re just objects.

Curatorial Assistant Paige Johnson has organized the expedition, and somehow controlled the flow of colleagues and visitors coming in from all over the world to this remote spot. She manages the budgets; sweating the amount of money the team spends for provisions, for instance, or the right U-Haul rental deal.

Aisling Farrell is a former Dino Institute stalwart who’s now a curatorial assistant at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, and is here as a consultant. She has been in the field with Luis many times, she knows all the sites, she has an uncanny sense of direction, she loves prospecting and she never tires.

Susan Russak became a Natural History Museum docent in 2004, and then one day the NHM Volunteer Coordinator invited her up to the fourth floor paleontology lab. “I walked in, and that was it,” Susan says. This is her third expedition in Utah.

The scientists from the American Museum have known Luis for years and been in the field with this team many times. They remark often—unsolicited—how impressive Luis’ team is, how well its moving parts work, and how much fun they are, even under pressure.

So though there were many strong impressions during the trip, the overriding one was the focus of the paleontologists—and the way the desert seemed to unexpectedly feed their energy. One factor was the pressure of big excavation goals coming up against a ticking clock of limited trips and budgets. There’s also the single-mindedness that comes when the cell phone doesn’t get a signal and there’s no TV for miles. But there was something else kicking around out here too, some kind of mojo, for lack of a better word, radiating out of the sage-brush dotted desert stretches that themselves, aren’t outwardly kinetic.

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