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For One Retired Utah Paleontologist, Love Of Science Never Goes Extinct

Courtesy/Dinosaur National Monument
Dan Chure retired from Dinosaur National Monument in eastern Utah after working there as a paleontologist for 38 years. Here he is at the monument's "Wall of Bones." This weekend, he'll be at Dinofest in Salt Lake City.

Dan Chure had just wrapped up a careerat Dinosaur National Monument last summer. He’d worked there nearly 40 years.

“I'm not leaving because there's nothing left to do at Dinosaur National Monument paleontologically — there’s generation's worth,” he said then. “I’m 65, and there are some other things I want to do.”

Maybe it sounds like Chure’s ready to move on, even take up woodworking. But not really. It turns out that being a dinosaur scientist is not something you really retire from — or even grow out of. He'll be speaking, and maybe leading a field trip at the second annual Dinofest at the Natural History Museum of Utah this weekend.

“When I was very young, there were local TV stations out of New York City that would run filler movies on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the same movie over and over and over again. And I saw the 1933 King Kong with all the stop action dinosaurs.”

T-Rex lost that epic battle with Kong in film, but not in the budding paleontologist’s heart. Chure’s fervor actually grew, thanks to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

“Probably the most influential dinosaur there is the colossal mount of Tyrannosaurus Rex which just dominates the hall and everybody stands in front of it in awe.”

“I never lost that childhood kind of fascination with dinosaurs. I mean I got much more sophisticated and technical and much more detailed...”

But the experiences stayed exciting, even after he became a professional.

“Well, I've been fortunate to have a lot of really spectacular moments in my professional life. There was a site in the Nugget Sandstone which is one part of what was once a huge sand dune desert that covered most of the western U.S. has almost no fossils known from it. And one day I was working with a colleague George Engelmann. Came up onto this little platform of sand and it was covered with bone eroding out. And, at that moment, we knew we had made the discovery of our lives.”

At the Natural History Museum of Utah, the collections room is really a big fossil library. Bones the size of easy chairs are stacked neatly on shelves — some so high you need a ladder to get to them. Rows of rolling cabinets hold lots of the smaller specimens in the museum’s paleontology collection of 30,000.

This drawer has some plates of typical Utah redrock, only they’re stamped with what looks like large footprints of birds. This is the stuff that’s fueled Chure’s passion all these years.

Credit Judy Fahys / KUER
Randall Irmis is the curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Randall Irmis, the museum’s curator of paleontology, shows a visitor specimens from the time period that Chure studies.

“This time period — the very beginning the age of dinosaurs, the Triassic period — is the origin of our our ecosystems we see today,” he says.

“So the first mammals show up, the first lizards, the first frogs and salamanders….”

Irmis is half Chure’s age, but he also calls himself a kid who never grew up when it comes to paleontology. His eyes get wider, and he talks faster, as he takes me to another cabinet. He’s also interested in this era.

“Pretty much any paleontologist you talked to is as excited about it as I am,” he says. “And I think that's one of the really cool things about paleontology.

All the stuff Irmis knows about dinosaurs — it’s amazing. Like how they probably could hear pretty well because of the little bones in their ears. Like how dinosaur cells and human cells have a lot of basic similarities.

“And, on top of that, it's just a really exciting time in the science, because so many new things are being discovered,” he says. “We have a lot of new techniques that we can apply with new technology, and so we're really beginning to understand how dinosaurs and other ancient creatures lived not just about their anatomy or relationships but how did they live and die.”

But it’s not just dinosaur bones that Irmis knows. He understands how paleontology captures a person’s imagination and keeps its grip through a lifetime. He gets Dan Chure.

“Pretty much every paleontologist I know of that has retired has done it so that they can spend even more time doing research and field work,” says Irmis. “Eventually, I think as paleontologists, we just we continue to do more and more research until we become fossils ourselves.”

Dan Chure’s been retired now for half a year. He and some colleagues are still studying that quarry he mentioned in the Nugget Sandstone in eastern Utah’s Uintah Basin. He’ll be talking about these oasis creatures at Dinofest this weekend, focusing on the tracks and burrows they made as they went about their dinosaur routines.

Irmis will be there. So will other paleo-scholars and amateur dino-geeks. Kids will be there, too.

Chure’s looking forward to getting together with old friends.

“It’s just like a lot of kids go through that dinosaur maniac phase and then move on - I just hang out with the kids that never grew out of that phase.”

Dinofest is Saturday and Sunday at the Natural History Museum. And Irmis and Chure want everyone to know they’re invited.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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