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The Golden Age Of Paleontology: New Skeleton Part Of A Rich Dinosaur Trove In Southeast Utah

WHITE MESA — Just south of Blanding, researchers are excavating seven giant dinosaur vertebrae. They are part of a 70-foot-long diplodocus skeleton that will be on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Alyssa Bell directs fieldwork for the project, which is spearheaded by Luis Chiappe, the museum's Dinosaur Institute director. Bell leads a team of 12 researchers from around the world, who shout to each other in Spanish over the sound of jackhammers and an electrical generator. The team has been here for four weeks, and they’ve already excavated around 30 bones. 

But the most important ones — those neck vertebrae — are still in the ground. Bell explains they have to get them out by the end of the week so preparators will have time to clean and mount the full skeleton for the opening of the museum’s new Welcome Center in 2022.

Photo of Three men wearing ear covers using power tools to drill into grey rock at the quarry.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Researchers use jackhammers to separate the rock containing the vertebrae from the rest of the rock in the quarry. They use jackhammers and chisels to break up the stone, and then cover the rock containing the bones in a protective jacket. The rock type changes throughout the quarry, and the grey rock is especially hard, requiring the use of power tools. The Morrison formation is largely made up of river sediment where bones were collected and buried.

Bell refers to the diplodocus skeleton as Gnatalie, after the Gnatalie Quarry, where the bones were found. The quarry is a 150 million year old bone bed discovered in 2007 by a team from the Los Angeles County museum. They came to Utah looking for bones from the Jurassic Period to round out the museum’s collection, and state paleontologist Jim Kirkland directed them to San Juan County. 

Photo of Dr. Alyssa Bell.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Dr. Alyssa Bell points to where the bone that led to the quarry was discovered. The quarry is the tented area in the background, where researchers dig into the side of a hill to find more bones.

“I knew if we sent someone down there they’d find something good, and without question, immediately they found something exciting,” he said. 

The diplodocus is a genus of dinosaur. They had small heads, long necks and tails, and are some of the longest dinosaurs known to ever exist. The Gnatalie skeleton is made up of bones from a few different species of diplodocus. It isn’t particularly rare to find bones from one of these in Utah, according to Kirkland. But Gnatalie is unique for another reason. The bones from the quarry are green, thanks to a mineral present during the fossilization process. Bell says it may be the first green dinosaur skeleton mounted in the world. 

“This is very particular to this quarry,” she said. “So once we mount Gnatalie, it will be the green dinosaur.”

Photo of a cross section of a dark grey-green piece of bone embedded in a chunk of rock.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
A piece of dinosaur bone sticks out of a chunk of rock. Researchers remove these chunks of rock and send them to a lab in Los Angeles, where the bones are carefully removed from the rock.

Another thing that makes Gnatalie unique is the location where the bones were found. According to Kirkland, the Gnatalie Quarry is on the southwest edge of the Morrison Formation, which is a 150 million year-old riverbed that preserved a lot of dinosaur bones. 

“It’s probably the most southern big, Jurassic dinosaur excavated in this part of the world,” he said.

Photo of scientists holding map.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Dr. Alyssa Bell and scientific illustrator Stephanie Abramowicz point at bones on a map of the quarry. Each discovery is carefully recorded so that researchers know exactly where bones were found. Fossils found in this quarry are part of the Morrison Formation.

The Gnatalie Quarry is one of many dinosaur bone excavations going on in the state, according to Kirkland. He says Utah is probably setting a record for the number of sites that are currently active.

“You’d look at Utah as being in its golden age [of] paleontology,” he said. “They’re important discoveries happening almost weekly.”

Kirkland estimates that researchers have discovered over 100 new dinosaur species in Utah in the past quarter century. And the paleontological gold rush isn’t slowing down. According to Kirkland, there are a handful of other museums excavating large dinosaur skeletons in the state right now, and teams are constantly looking for new bone beds. 

“We don’t know much about the state, as it is,” he said. “There’s so much more to learn.” 

Although they will have collected all the bones for the diplodocus skeleton, Bell and her team will return to San Juan County next year. They plan to prospect for bones from the Cretaceous Period, which came after the Jurassic. Kirkland has been working on a Cretaceous site in Southeast Utah, but he says there are more than enough discoveries to go around.

Photo of scientists loading fossils.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Researchers arrange small and medium jackets containing bones in the bed of a pickup truck. The researchers removed around 30 bones from the quarry this year.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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