Dinosaur bones: Why Utah’s desert is a paleontologist’s playground
Most animals are destined for the same fate. When they die, scavengers will consume their flesh and organs, while a combination of bacteria and soil acid will spoil away their bones. Eventually, as God tells Adam in the book of Genesis, “to dust you shall return.” They vanish, leaving no trace of their existence, no record of ever having drawn breath, consumed by the recycling system that allows new life to rise. According to Bill Bryson’s reporting in “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” this is the case for over 99.9 percent of living organisms. Yet sometimes, when conditions are just right — either wet enough for a body to make a perfectly preserved stamp of itself or with sediments deep enough for decomposition to take place without the interference of oxygen — traces of life long-dead can endure. If only we can find them.
“Only a very tiny percentage of species that ever existed on Earth have been fossilized,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Of those that have, only a fraction have been discovered. That’s in part due to accessibility; many fossils are likely buried so deeply that they’re unreachable. But it’s also because paleontology, as a science, remains fairly new. Nevertheless, it persists, thanks to people willing to visit often-remote wilderness with shovels and pickaxes, playing Earth’s most elusive game.
Deep in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a ragtag bunch of scientists and volunteers have arrived bearing those exact tools. They range in age from 22 to 70, and they’ve pitched their tents atop a grayish-brown soil that turns to clouds of powder with each step. They’ve come here, to the Kaiparowits formation, in search of dinosaurs. A dream of so many children (myself, a few decades ago, included), realized.
They’ve found them. This particular site, now known as T2, is the confirmed resting place of a tyrannosaur, which may be the first complete adult specimen of an incredibly rare species. And the fact that it lies under 10 feet of ancient sandstone conglomerate in the Utah desert is no coincidence. Utah has been known as a paleontological treasure chest since the late 19th century. In fact, the Utah History Encyclopedia says the state boasts a “prolific fossil record that spans the entire ‘Age of Dinosaurs.’”
That came as a surprise to me after I moved out West. Back when I was somewhere in the range of pre-kindergarten through first grade, my school had a large, sandy playground. One day during recess, my friends and I started digging a hole in front of a plastic playhouse. We were searching for dinosaur bones. When we hit something big and hard — likely a chunk of the limestone undergirding Florida — we were convinced we’d found a dino skull. That same spirit, it turns out, animates the folks who go out and look for the real thing.
Amber Stubbings, of Midvale, Utah, a 35-year-old former bureaucrat with a buzzcut and a dopamine molecule tattooed on her wrist, is one of six volunteers here for this excavation. As biting gnats buzz about everyone’s heads, she explains that for her, it began with the 1993 film “Jurassic Park.” In the movie, scientists extract prehistoric DNA from a mosquito preserved in fossilized tree resin, or amber, and use it to clone dinosaurs. Scientists have never actually extracted dinosaur DNA using this method, but the mere mention of the word amber — i.e. her name — captured her imagination, and still does.
Randy Johnson, a retired explosives chemist nicknamed “Dr. Boom,” started volunteering about a decade ago. Since then, he’s logged some 15,000 hours in the lab and in the field and even has a dinosaur named after him. With a khaki getup and a white, 70-year-old’s beard, he looks like the archetype of the aging adventurer who’s still got it. Another bearded 70-year-old named Paul Boyle, who wears special knee pads for hammering away at rocks, traces his interest to the dinosaurs of the Disney classic “Fantasia.”
Whatever the reason, explains expedition leader Randy Irmis, the common thread uniting the folks who do this work is curiosity. Behind frameless spectacles, 40-year-old Irmis is an understated Renaissance man. Knowledgeable about everything from arachnids to photo composition to pilot-caused plane crashes, his main area of expertise is fossils. As the curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah, he’s been digging for dinosaurs since 2002 — and earlier, if you count those childhood forays in the backyard. Out here, he does more or less the same work as the volunteers. But in the lab, he’s also responsible for analyzing the specimens hauled back. It’s his job to understand what they tell us about where the Earth has been and where it might be headed. “By having this perspective on Earth’s past, we can speak a bit to where we’re going in the future,” he explains. “The big question is, how is climate change going to impact us? … If we want to understand where we might be going in the next couple of centuries with climate change and greenhouse gasses, the only way we can answer that question is by looking further back in time.” The fossil record can be cyclical in that way, illuminating how the unprecedented challenges we humans face are likely not unprecedented at all when taking a planetary perspective.
Bone seekers from across the country visit Grand Staircase in search of treasure. The Kaiparowits formation, in particular, features a wealth of skeletons from the Late Cretaceous Period — a time when the land that is now Utah desert was wet and humid and full of life — some of it (at least thus far) found nowhere else on Earth. Studying that life can help scientists paint a more complete picture of what was. In this case, the dig’s specimen is believed to be a species of tyrannosaur called “Teratophoneus curriei” — a 30-foot meat-eater with serrated teeth whose scientific name translates from the Greek to “monstrous murderer.”
Tyrannosaurs existed as the apex predators of their environments, and studying them can tell paleontologists about those environments: about animal diversity, abundance, growth and metabolism, and how tyrannosaurs served ecological roles similar to (or different from) the apex predators of today. Such skeletons also contribute to a scant fossil record; the first of this species wasn’t discovered until 2011 (and it was a sub-adult), so the more specimens scientists have available, the more they can test their hypotheses about aging, population variation, diets, etc. In fact, Irmis and his colleagues hope to learn whether this tyrannosaur is actually a new species. Since the Kaiparowits formation contains sediment encompassing about two million years, answering that question could help scientists understand whether multiple species of tyrannosaur occupied that space at different times during that span — or, perhaps more interestingly, at the same time. An ecosystem can’t usually sustain more than one apex predator, so if this one did, it could raise new possibilities about the environment that once enveloped southern Utah.
Studying specimens like this one also offers clues about climate change, given that many dinosaurs lived in an era when elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were orders of magnitude higher than they are today. That’s a big leap for the modern benefits of paleontology, a field of study that was once considered scandalous.
Paleontology entered a world unaccustomed to the idea of a planetary existence that predated humans and featured mass-extinction events. “This made (God) seem not so much careless as peculiarly hostile,” writes Bryson. Indeed, the word “paleontology” wasn’t used in the scientific community until 1822, and Charles Darwin’s landmark treatise “On the Origin of Species” was not published until 1859. Many of the first specimens discovered were not recognized for what they were. But once they became known, the idea of creatures that were “big, fierce, and extinct,” as the late child psychologist Sheldon White once observed, inspired generations. Paleontology, for many children, became a gateway science.
The fossil record can be cyclical, illuminating how the unprecedented challenges we humans face are likely not unprecedented at all when taking a planetary perspective.
Natural history scholar Keith Stewart Thomson noted in 2005 that dinosaurs exist today as a cultural phenomenon — as something both “half real and half not real,” and therefore fascinating. And the more we can learn about them, the more we can bridge that gap. “Whatever conclusion you reach, that’s always just a new hypothesis,” Irmis tells me just before everyone at the camp in Grand Staircase retreats to their tents beneath the star-spattered (and mercifully gnat-free) night sky. “So that’s why it’s important to keep coming out here.”
The process of extracting bones starts with finding them. While I rest under a shady juniper tree at the tyrannosaur digsite, a volunteer named Dave — who looks like the quintessential vacationing dad — calls me over to an embankment about 50 paces away, where he’s found what he thinks are a few chunks of bone. To test them, we lick them — a common practice, because if it’s bone, it’ll stick to your tongue. These stick, so we know they’re bone (if you’re wondering what dinosaur bones taste like, they’re much like pasta: They taste like whatever “sauce” they come in). But finding a site worth excavating requires more than bone fragments alone. Rather, it requires a refined sense that most folks will tell you can only be developed with practice. Luckily, the perfect person to explain happens to show up.
Taylor Barnette, a trim, fit guy with a sleeveless shirt and a fanny pack, happens to be trail running in the area and stops by to take a look at his handiwork. He discovered this site back in 2018 while prospecting for the Bureau of Land Management. Originally from New Mexico, he worked in Manhattan for about two decades before deciding to move back to the Southwest, “van life around,” and look for fossils. “It was always a fantasy of mine to find a dinosaur. I didn’t think I was going to,” he explains. “I just thought it would be cool.” He honed the skill of fossil finding over two fruitless years, describing the process almost like machine learning: The more data you put in, the more accurate the results. “It’s just an accumulation of experience,” he says. “It’s like hunting an animal. You pick up instincts about where to go and where not to go.” His instincts told him this spot looked like a good one, and he turned out to be correct. He’d hoped to find one dinosaur, but earlier this week, the museum team confirmed that he’d actually done more than that: This excavation site, they’d confirmed, houses at least two tyrannosaurs.
Like deep-sea mysteries arising out of the dark, the tyrannosaur’s bones surface: a tibia, a femur, a metatarsal, a single tooth as big as a stapler. All of them cracked and reddish-brown, as one might expect given that they haven’t seen the light of day in some 76 million years.
The process of getting to bones like these starts with heavy-duty digging — usually several feet into hard rock. Once reached via jackhammers and sledgehammers, a more delicate touch is required. Scientists and volunteers use tools as large as pickaxes and as small as screwdrivers sharpened like pencils to chip away at fragments of rock, hoping that with every piece of stone they break off, a new bone will reveal itself. They’re constantly dusting their newly created surfaces with wood-handled paint brushes, trying to make sure nothing gets missed.
On this day, the crew breaks out additional artillery: a gas-powered concrete saw named “DEWEY,” scrawled across the instrument’s orange hull in thick permanent marker. Tylor Birthisel, paleontology lab manager at the museum, fires up the saw and begins cutting a trench through the main pile of bones, wearing a mask and goggles (a measure taken to specifically prevent the risk of the lung disease silicosis). He orders everyone to stand back. His sawing throws a cloud of talc-like dust all over the site. “It just gets into everything,” Boyle observes. So back to the brushes the crew goes.
Once they’ve isolated the pieces they want to collect, they place the smallest bones and bone fragments into clear Ziploc bags while covering the larger ones with wet paper towels. Then they mix up a tub of plaster, slather strips of burlap, and wrap the exposed fossils with their bare hands. The plaster leaves behind an unmistakable white tint on everyone’s palms, reminiscent of the white-powdered war boys of “Mad Max.” Once the plaster hardens, they chisel away at the rock underneath until the bone can be flipped upside down, with another plaster coat destined for the underbelly. And once the bone is fully plastered, they can haul it away — by hand if it’s small enough, but more often by helicopter, since these chunks of bone and rock can weigh over a thousand pounds.
That’s the most common type of work at this site: hammering away to extract bones that have already been found; digging trenches; encasing them with plaster; repeat. It’s important, given that a skeleton (now skeletons) of this size can take several years to dig up. Yet the real thrill, anyone here will tell you, is in the enticement of discovery.
Utah is a paleontologist’s playground.
Geologist John Strong Newberry was the first person to find dinosaur bones in the state. In 1859, he and an expedition team from the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers came across a mass of large, ancient, reptilian bones near what is Canyonlands National Park today. Newberry and his colleagues thought they were looking at an ichthyosaur — an ancient marine reptile that was not, in fact, a dinosaur. But 18 years later, a paleontologist identified the bones as belonging to a Triassic dinosaur. That was later revised to a Jurassic dinosaur, which is now known as “dystrophaeus.” Newberry’s find is the only known example of this species, and work on his original skeleton — as well as the area it came from — continues to this day. It was the first of many such discoveries in Utah, which contains an unusually extensive fossil record, starting one billion years ago and continuing through a few thousand years ago with few gaps.
“Utah’s fossil record of the diversification of early animals (Cambrian Period), the age of dinosaurs (Mesozoic Era), and diversification of modern mammal lineages (Eocene) is particularly noteworthy,” Irmis adds. Which makes it all the more enticing for amateurs, too.
Irmis hands me a hammer and screwdriver to give this digging thing a try; I promptly earn three blisters on my right index finger. But I also manage to remove (probably) a few dozen pounds of rock, including one with a curious red fragment lodged into it. “Is this anything?” I ask Irmis. “Yep, that’s a piece of bone all right,” he says.
From what, he can’t say. Perhaps a fragment of a tyrannosaur rib, or maybe a piece of an unrelated prehistoric turtle. I don’t care. It’s bone — my childhood fantasy fulfilled. This makes me that much more eager to keep digging because with each new piece of rock chipped away, another red fragment — maybe a bigger one! — might reveal itself. Hunting dinosaurs can be addicting in that way. “There are always the scientific reasons for why it’s exciting, because you’re always learning new things, and that’s fine. But then there’s just the emotional thrill of exposing a bone for the first time, and you’re the first human to ever see that fossil,” Irmis says. “Like, this is an animal that was alive 76 million years ago, and this is its actual shinbone right there! And I just start thinking about, like, ‘Wow, how big was this thing, and what did it look like when it was alive?’”
Those questions can lead to other big answers.
Dinosaurs, after all, lived in an era when the doubling or tripling of atmospheric greenhouse gasses wasn’t uncommon, thanks to massive volcanic eruptions. The fossil record tells us that when that happens, “life does take a hit.” (Read: massive extinction.) But there’s an even more relevant component to that story. “Oftentimes, these organisms and the ecosystems they live in take a long time — hundreds of thousands or even millions of years — to recover,” Irmis explains. “So I think the frightening thing is that if we don’t do anything right now, it’s not like we can decide to totally stop emitting carbon dioxide 200 years from now. The effects of what we’ve already emitted are going to last for thousands, tens of thousands of years, minimally.”
The good news, he says, is that we haven’t reached that point. That’s obviously important and valuable to know. Yet those more inscrutable questions — How big was it? What did it look like? — are the ones that drive such discoveries.
“The thing that makes me most sad is when I meet adults that have lost their curiosity,” Irmis says. “And I’m like, ‘What happened?’ I’m so sorry that it did.”
This dusty, dry bowl of desert gives you no choice but to exercise your imagination. You just have to look around to find something that will capture it. Literally. In the distance, several hundred feet away, we can just make out a blue drum of water — a marker of another tyrannosaur site. And just as we’re packing our bags to hike out for the day around 5 p.m., Birthisel and Randy Johnson return early. “I have good news and bad news,” Birthisel says, stomping up more gray plumes of dust. “The bad news is we have to be gone another day.
“The good news is we have a fully articulated gryposaurus skull” — which is science-speak for an intact duck-billed dinosaur skull. They’ve returned to pick up Dewey, because they need a saw to get it out.
The fossil record can be cyclical, illuminating how the unprecedented challenges we humans face are likely not unprecedented at all when taking a planetary perspective.