July 22, 2012
When paleontologists uncover a dinosaur, they have plenty of reason to worry. In some parts of the world, such as Mongolia, black market thieves often steal and smuggle dinosaurs that wind up bringing in hefty sums at auction houses. Sometimes, paleontologists have returned to field sites to find skeletons stolen right out from under their noses. But, even closer to home, vandals regularly damage and destroy dinosaurs. Earlier this month, an “irreplaceable” dinosaur skeleton discovered near Grande Prairie, Canada was destroyed by persons unknown.
According t0 the CBC, the destroyed skeleton was a hadrosaur being excavated by paleontologist Phil Bell and a University of Alberta field team. The dinosaur was discovered on June 15th, and was complete enough that Bell intended the dinosaur to eventually go up on exhibit. When Bell returned to the site this month, however, the dinosaur was turned into a cascade of broken bone fragments. Even worse, this isn’t the first time dinosaurs at this site have been vandalized. Since May, the report says, three other fossils have been stolen or damaged.
There’s no clear motive for why the criminals smashed the site. But they vandals left a clue behind. At a campsite near the dinosaur excavation, the CBC reports, investigators found a liquor store receipt that may help track down the people who so callously pulverized the hadrosaur.
I’m completely baffled as to why anyone would want to destroy a dinosaur. The fantastic animal beat the odds against preservation and remained locked in stone for tens of millions of years, and can tell us about a world that we can never see ourselves. What sort of stupid, selfish person would even think of turning a wonderful fossil into a pile of rubble? It is truly sad that paleontologists have to worry about this kind of destruction. Dinosaurs belong to everyone, and it’s heartbreaking to see one stolen from us by ignorant despoilers.
July 20, 2011
While driving along Interstate 40 toward eastern Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, you can’t miss the roadside dinosaurs. They’re all over the place. Many are concentrated in Vernal, about a 20-minute drive to the west of the national park, but a few stand near the highway in the small town of Jensen. One of my favorites is this fellow—an old, cracked dinosaur that could probably be called “Crocosaurus.” The thing looks more like an alligator doing a dinosaur impression than a real dinosaur, yet there is something unmistakably dinosaurian about it. I’ve been wondering about why this should be. Is it just the upright posture, or is there something else that clearly makes the model a dinosaur? As crude as it is, this restoration always makes me think about what—in the cultural realm, at least—makes a dinosaur.
Have you seen a prehistoric creature in an unusual place? Submissions of dinosaurs—and other ancient beasts—should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 7, 2011
Even when you know what to look for, dinosaur tracks can be easy to miss. I learned this the hard way on a recent visit to one small tracksite in eastern Utah.
Although Moab, Utah is best known for Arches National Park, uranium mines and various sorts of outdoor recreation, there are traces of dinosaurs in the area, too. Among the fossil sites is a short set of the only known sauropod tracks in Utah. About 23 miles north of Moab on State Road 191 is an inconspicuous, unmarked turnoff around mile marker 148.7. The unpaved road crosses a set of railroad tracks and disappears in the low, dusty hills, and after bumping along for about two miles in our small car, my wife and I arrived at the trailhead.
We spent about 15 minutes looking for the tracks. Neither of us could quite figure out where they were hiding, and the interpretive sign at the top of the trail gave no indication of where they might be. We had no idea that we had walked right over them until my wife spotted one of the large theropod tracks. Right at the top of the trail, there were at least three kinds of footprints set in the rippled, reddish rock, tracks that had persisted for about 150 million years. A fresh coating of dried mud gave some of the tracks a more recent look—as if the dinosaurs had walked by just last week—and partially obscured them from view.
The tracks were not all made at the same time. The sauropod footprints—attributed to Camarasaurus by the sign—were crossed by tracks left by a small theropod dinosaur moving in a different direction. The overlay of the smaller tracks meant that they were made after the big sauropod had passed. Footprints made by a larger predator were left just a few feet away. Several impressions recorded the movement of an Allosaurus-sized theropod, but the tracks had a curious pattern. Rather than indicating an even stride, the tracks alternated between long and short steps. Perhaps this individual had an injury that caused it to limp or take an irregular gait. Thanks to Allosaurus specimens like “Big Al,” we know that these dinosaurs did suffer foot injuries and infections that would have affected their ability to walk, and the Copper Ridge tracks might record the painful footsteps of one such dinosaur.
June 1, 2011
Two years ago, I visited the American West for the first time. I was immediately hooked. Seeing the morning sunlight hit the dinosaur-rich Jurassic rock of northern Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument was what really did it for me. When I saw that, I knew that I had to move out West, and a few weeks ago I settled in Salt Lake City to devote myself to writing about the prehistoric past. I now live right in the middle of dinosaur country—some of North America’s most productive and important dinosaur sites are within a day’s drive—and this past weekend I had the chance to visit a few located just a few hours from my new hometown.
At the southern tip of the series of highways making up the Dinosaur Diamond, Moab is right in the middle of dinosaur country. The geologic strata of the area is piled high with sedimentary rock from the heyday of the dinosaurs—from the Late Triassic through the Early Cretaceous in many places—and, at a few spots, vestiges left by dinosaurs can be easily seen. One such place is right along Potash Road, just outside Moab itself.
Left in Navajo Sandstone dating to about 190 million years ago, the Potash Road dinosaur tracks come from a time tens of millions of years before the famous Jurassic fauna of the Morrison Formation. The world was quite different then. Today the tracks rest in two slabs perched on a rocky hill within a stone’s throw of the Colorado River, but when the tracks were made the area was a sandy shore of a lake.
The tracks were left by at least three different size classes of theropod dinosaurs. Two slabs of rock contain relatively small tracks paleontologists have assigned the name Grallator, slightly bigger tracks known as Eubrontes and even larger footprints, according to an interpretative sign at the site, were left by Allosaurus. This last attribution is probably a mistake. Allosaurus lived later in the Jurassic—around 155 million to 150 million years ago—and, unless an animal dies in its tracks, paleontologists can’t be certain what species created them. That’s why tracks are given their own names. In fact, it is possible that at least some of the tracks were made by dinosaurs of the same species but belonging to different ages. We may never know for sure, but the Potash Road tracks are still wonderful monuments from a time when dinosaurs were at home in Utah. I can’t wait to visit more of them.
May 12, 2011
For six days this coming July, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History paleontologist Michael Brett-Surman will be leading a pair of dinosaur workshops for kindergarten through 12th grade teachers interested in getting some hands-on experience with geology and paleontology. Based out of Shell, Wyoming, the workshops can be taken for college credit, and are divided into two topics:
July 1 to 3: The first workshop is called “DinosaurScience” and combines classroom lectures with visits to the field to explain how paleontologists reconstruct dinosaur biology.
July 6 to 8: Titled “The History of Life Through Fossils,” the second workshop is a survey of the last 600 million years, with a focus on the strata of Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin.
More information about the workshops can be found at the Bighorn Basin GeoScience Center website. The registration deadline is May 15, 2011.