Dinosaur Hunting

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

rock saws

Sometimes excavation requires a soft touch. Other times, as demonstrated here by Luis Chiappe, it can involve rock saws, drills, and sledgehammers.

Dinosaur Institute, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

There are hugs, and greetings in Spanish and English. The team is at 13 at this point—Paige, Stephanie, Aisling, Susan and Doug from the NHM; a geologist, an illustrator and paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History; and paleontology colleagues from museums and universities in Spain and Argentina. The group shifts all the time however—colleagues, volunteers and donors cycle in and out as the days pass.

Red wine is poured, the campfire built, and I hold a flashlight while Luis sets up his tent faster than I can print out a 10-page document at work. The ladies from the museum tell me about their auspicious arrival: the first night was so cold their hands stopped working while they were pitching camp, then they awoke to three inches of snow on the ground. Susan Russak, a Museum docent and Dino Institute volunteer, caught what she was calling “some sort of bronchitis” and repaired to a motel in Banning for a couple of nights. She’s healthy now, and back in her tent.

I hear the Recapture Lodge calling me back for the night and I head to my car, serenaded by the jeers of the campers—they have no problem calling out wimpy city slickers.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

It’s cold and clear. I get to camp as the team is having breakfast. One of the rental car stereos is turned up with country music coming out of Durango—Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” followed by the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” A couple of Argentineans are brewing maté tea; the Americans are drinking coffee. It’s obvious I’m new because I trip over small rocks constantly and my jeans are clean. Except for powdered sugar from the mini-donuts I bought at the gas station this morning.

We caravan first to the quarry, located off of a sign-less dirt road winding away from the highway. Whoever rides shotgun opens and closes the barbed wire cattle fence—the land is under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but ranchers rent it so their cattle can graze. BLM isn’t keen on the team driving cars close to the quarry, so we park and walk about ten minutes toward some low hills.

The Real Jurassic Park

The idea that anyone would know there are dinosaurs out here is outrageous to me. Aisling picks up what I think are just a bunch of little gray rock bits—she says they’re dino bones, and that prospecting is often like following breadcrumbs. Sure enough, amid what just looks like gray rock and fine sand and boulders there’s a small pit, and in it—I actually stop in my tracks at the sight of them—in it are the greenish bones of an approximately 150 million-year-old sauropod.

They’re beautiful, they really are, but start thinking about how they’re a hundred millions years old, and they also become a touchstone for concepts so weighty they induce wooziness. I ate donuts from a gas station mini-mart and listened to country music this morning—I’m not prepared to think about the enormity of time, the cycles of this planet, the total insignificance of my life, and the even scarier kicker, the total significance of my life. This sauropod, this long-necked herbivore that I keep calling “the dinosaur giraffe” to the scientists’ chagrin, is making an impression millions of years after he died. He’s connected to us. We’re all connected. We all have an impression to make and to leave. All of it matters. Oh man. I’m gonna need more donuts.

The group stands around the pit, and in a bilingual rapid fire, get Luis caught up with what they’ve done. It’s been a fruitful quarry. A few feet away from where we’re standing is the Gnatalie site, a sauropod the team excavated last June, nicknamed for the biting gnats that terrorized them while they worked. In between gnat attacks, they excavated a nearby site as well, then capped it with burlap and plaster, and topped that with dirt. This year, the plan is to subdivide the pit and map it, then remove as much as possible before the end of the expedition. Aisling pushes up the sleeves of her T-shirt; Luis and the Spanish speakers say what they always say before they get to work—“vámonos.”

Luis, Paige and I press on to the second site. It’s about a 15-minute drive away and located off yet another sign-less dirt road. It’s a different landscape here: more grays and fewer shrubs, if that’s possible, and the small dig pit is tucked under a rock overhang at the top of a hill. These bones aren’t bright green—but it’s still a dramatic sight—an articulated sauropod tail, laying right there in the gray dirt. Luis digs for a while alone, then tells the group how he wants them to proceed. We walk back down the hill to the car, and head back to first site.

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