Digging Dinosaurs

A Learning Vacation for the Whole Family
By Joan Huyser-Honig
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Oh, Lordy, Lordy! These teeth are connected to a jawbone," says Ed Cole, Jr.

Beside him, leaning in as if he and Cole are peers, is our 12-year-old son Josh. He brushes aside crumbled sandstone and says,"Look! There's more bone."

Cole uncovers another attached tooth. His voice rises: "My heart's going a hundred miles a minute. This is the first time we've found teeth connected to jawbone along this whole ridge."

We are outside Thermopolis, Wyoming, at Warm Springs Ranch, where dinosaur bones were first discovered in 1993. Since then, more than 1500 bones— including two nearly-complete Camarasaur skeletons— have been located.

Over 50 dig sites have been established on this square mile of gray-green mudstone and buff sandstone, and because experts estimate it may take 150 years to find all the bones, amateurs are invited to work alongside professionals in a pay-to-dig program.

Our family of four signed on for a one day dig in the sweltering heat of August. We begin with a half-hour orientation at Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a privately-owned museum built in 1995. Next to the lab, where visitors watch technicians prepare and mount bones, we see a nine-foot-long Camarasaur leg bone taken from the dig site.

The shuttle bus jounces two miles through scrubby hills and up a gouged-out ridge, where bulldozers have peeled away sagebrush and juniper to expose bonebeds left from an ancient stream channel. One geologist jackhammers a stubborn piece of rock. Others map and measure exposed bones.

We follow Cole a quarter-mile downhill through the dust to our dig site. A blue tarp shades lawn chairs and coolers from the intense sun. Cole points to a large bone in a cardboard box. "That's the biggest we've found in this site so far this summer," he says. "Probably a vertebra from a meat eater. A day digger found it yesterday."

He hands us each a rock hammer, pick, small shovel and paint brush, then shows how to loosen and split rock chunks, examine them and brush debris downhill. "It takes half a day to get an eye for soil, to see differences in colors and shapes. But 99 percent of people find at least a bone fragment," he says. My husband, Steve, a former science teacher, unearths two fragments right away.

Forty minutes later, Cole says, "Here's a chevron from a Diplodocus— and here's a rib."

While we chip along the rib, he explains that chevrons were attached to the tailbone on plant-eating dinosaurs. Most chevrons are Y-shaped, but many Diplodocus chevrons were V-shaped, like the one we have uncovered.

When the rib's whole front edge is exposed, we stare in amazement. The reddish fossilized bone is four feet long.

Cole remains blasi. The rib looks big to us, but in 1994 he found a 450-pound sacrum (the bone attaching backbone and pelvis) on site. His father, Ed Cole Sr., is the fossil prospector who originally discovered dinosaurs at Warm Springs Ranch. His mother, Ava Cole, found a previously unknown horned dinosaur in Montana in 1981; it was officially named Avaceratops in her honor. A dozen trilobytes (ancient marine insects) that Cole and his father found elsewhere are now in the Smithsonian. Bone digging, you might say, runs in the family.

We lunch uphill under a canvas lean-to, listening to geologists— all under age 30— debate paleontological theories as casually as most people discuss sports or weather. "This is a very inexact science, with lots of room for speculation," geologist Cheryl Bjoraker tells us.

Every hour the shuttle bus crawls up the ridge, carting another load of dig-tour visitors. We join a group to learn about the upper dig sites.

"This rock layer is about 150 million years old. It's from the Jurassic Period, when dinosaurs ruled. So far we've identified seven dinosaur genera," says geologist Sean Fishbaugh. He passes around a spoon-shaped Camarasaur tooth, then holds up a claw and a bone gouged by predator's teeth.

Pointing to three-toed footprints that appeared to have been made by a 100-ton chicken, Fishbaugh says, "We think these were made by an Allosaur, a large carnivore. Finding Jurassic footprints and bones on the same site— as we have— is rare. Evidence here may prove that Allosaur parents brought food to their young."

We trek downhill again to move more rocks— lots of them. The sun is even hotter. No matter how much ice water and Mountain Dew we guzzle, we felt parched. Steve retreats under the tarp, but Josh and my 14-year-old son Abe aren't ready to leave.

"Dusting rock is very peaceful," Abe explains.

I ask Cole if he ever gets bored, chipping at rocks day after day. "Are you kidding?" he says. "I'm sitting where the largest animals that ever walked this earth once were. These bones were here 150 million years, and now I'm touching them."

Josh examines a bumpy rock. "Hey, is this anything?"

Cole joins him to investigate. "That's interesting. This pebbled surface could be fossilized baby dinosaur skin. If it is, it would be the first we've found on this ridge."

That's when he uncovers the jawbone. "We've found dozens of teeth, but never any still attached to bone," he says, slowly chipping away to reveal more of the fossil. "We've got a chance to find a whole skull here."

The last shuttle arrives before Josh and Cole establish the full extent of their find. Cole needs to meet with other geologists, so we part ways, promising to keep in touch by e-mail.

Several months later we get a message from Cole— the chevron and rib are indeed from a Diplodocus. He had finished preparing the jawbone fragment— and they were also, apparently, from a Diplodocus. Only parts of a skull had been found, but Cole wrote that they were unusually well-preserved, with "exquisite detail and definition" between bone junctures.

The email concludes: "Sorry, Josh, the fossilized baby dino skin turned out to be gypsum crystals."

Given the memorable experience he had digging for dinosaurs, Josh doesn't seem to mind.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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