I received the best news this morning. I feel kind of like the kid that really, really wanted a pony for Christmas. He unwraps his biggest, best-wrapped package to find nothing but a box full of horse manure. He’s insanely, wildly happy. “But you only got manure,” his sister points out.
“Yeah, but where there’s poop, there’s got to be a pony!”
My exciting package was an email that had been forwarded about a million times, but when I dug through the poop, I found the pony. A link—a simple little blue-underlined link—that led to a press release about Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.
Dinosaur National Monument and I go back a long way. My prized possession in the third grade was a fossil clam. Embedded in a limestone slab that I found in the creek on my great-aunt’s ranch in Texas, that clam and I moved around the world together.
In the 5th grade, I spent my time after school sifting through the bulldozed soil of construction sites in our neighborhood looking for pretty rocks and fossils. I found a trilobite one time. I was enthralled by this marble-sized, dark grey animal, curled up like a pillbug. I took it to school the next day and my 5th grade science teacher tried to take it from me. “It will go into a museum,” he said. Even as a 5th grader, I was skeptical of this story. I’d seen the gleam in his eye, the way his hand curled possessively around the trilobite. The trilobite returned home with me and I never showed it to another adult.
After graduating from high school, I traveled with my grandparents from Oregon to Texas. We stopped briefly somewhere in Wyoming or Utah where they were excavating a dinosaur. “Do you want to stay?” my grandfather asked.
“Yes.” I began unloading my luggage from the car.
“No, no,” my grandfather grabbed my arm. “I was just teasing. Let’s go.”
I would have stayed. I probably should have stayed. I think I pouted all the way through Colorado.
My first real brush with Dinosaur National Monument was in 2006 when a friend and I stopped to see the famous wall of bones. We didn’t get far. The quarry was closed for renovations. Come back later. Have a nice day! Damn.
Even though I’ve had a life-long obsession with fossils and dinosaurs and things preserved in rock, it wasn’t until 2015 that I actually got to see the Carnegie Quarry at Dinosaur National Monument. I arrived promptly at 9:00 in the morning, road the first tram of the day to the (newly renovated) Quarry Exhibit Hall, and stepped from the bright sunshine to face The Wall. I felt like I was in the presence of God. My heart beat rapidly and I couldn’t quit smiling.
The Wall is a 2-story rock face preserving the story of life approximately 150 million years ago. The rock from nearly 1,500 fossilized bones of long-necked sauropods, predatory theropods, spike-tailed Stegosaurus, and small, but speedy ornithopods was painstakingly chiseled away so the bones would be easier to see.
Although the dinosaur bones get the most attention, it’s the details that tell the story the best. To get the big picture, scientists looked at microfossils, invertebrate, small vertebrates, fossil soils, trace fossils and pollen to understand the environment in which the dinosaurs lived. Was it humid and hot? Or hot and dry? People assumed that the long necks of the sauropods were for browsing in tall forests of conifer trees. The fern fossils were believed to be indicators of a very wet environment.
But by looking at the details as individual pieces to a larger puzzle—rather than the entire puzzle itself—a different story emerged. Over 225 different types of pollen and spores were recovered from the sediments surrounding the dinosaur bones, indicating a much greater diversity of plants than was first believed to exist. Yes, there were conifer trees, but there was also an understory of ginkgo, cycad-like plants, horsetails, ferns, rushes, and clubmosses.
It turns out that the long-necked sauropods really couldn’t raise their heads much above hip-level, so the idea of dense forests of conifers with sauropods nipping branches from the treetops lost favor. The Jurassic environment was revealed as a Serengeti-like plain with vast semi-arid fernlands interspersed with clumps of conifers and dense riparian vegetation along the watercourses.
At least, that’s what the scientists think now. The thing about science—the exciting thing about science—is that the story changes and gets refined, as we learn more. Chemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi is credited with my favorite definition of science: “Science is to see what everyone else has seen, but think what no one else has thought.”
That press release that I received this morning opens the door wide for some new thinking about the dinosaurs of Dinosaur National Monument. For the past two years, paleontologist Dr. Dan Chure and a team of volunteers have photographed the fossils of the Carnegie Quarry, illustrated them, digitized historical records, and consolidated data to create a publicly-accessible Digital Quarry.
For armchair paleontologists like me, or serious academic types, this is an incredible resource. It’s days like these that make paying taxes a pleasure. Congratulations, National Park Service. Well done.