Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Natural Wonders, Old and New

It was a week of amazing spectacles, all courtesy of Mother Nature.

I returned home to California a couple of days ago after a brief, but eventful stint hunting dinosaurs (the extinct kind) in the wilds of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. As I write, some of the crew is still out there in those southern Utah badlands, but I thought I’d offer Whirlpool of Life readers a few highlights from our spring expedition.

Ring of Fire: Annular Eclipse, 2012
The week began in spectacular fashion, with no less than an eclipse of our nearby stellar neighbor. After flying from San Francisco to Las Vegas, I drove my rental 4X4 about four and half hours to the north-central part of Grand Staircase near the small town of Cannonville. Passing through Bryce Canyon, I saw dozens of people setting up telescopes and cameras by the side of the road. No time to waste.

After fixing a surprise flat tire, I made my way out to the meeting spot—a beautiful double sandstone arch known as Grosvenor Arch. There I met with rocket engineer and paleontology volunteer Phil Policelli, with whom I viewed an annular eclipse. Most people are familiar with total eclipses, in which the moon blocks out the entire disk of the sun, turning day to night. An annular eclipse occurs when the lunar disk blocks only the center of the sun, leaving a glowing ring—the annulus, or “ring of fire”—around the silhouette of the moon. Safe viewing requires proper tinted glasses, which thankfully Phil had on hand. It was a magical event, as the sunny afternoon turned briefly to twilight.  

Loading the nets with gear for the helicopter airlift.

Other crewmembers came in later that evening. We camped overnight at Grosvenor Arch and arose the next morning to begin preparations for the helicopter airlift. A “heli-tac” crew arrived and began setting out nets to carry our gear. We weighed the various items—including water barrels, plaster, kitchen items, food, jackhammer, and personal gear—and spread them out among the nets. In total, seven helicopter trips to the remote campsite would be required.

The Kaiparowits Formation, aerial view

I was fortunate enough to ride onboard the first trip. What would normally take almost two hours of challenging off-road driving plus another hour of hiking was navigated in a mere five minutes by helicopter. Fortunately, we had a little trouble locating the campsite, forcing us to make a few stunning circles over the rugged, gray-banded terrain.

Most expedition members—including crews from the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Monument—hiked into camp. Over the course of the week, in addition to prospecting for new sites, we concentrated efforts on five quarries, four of which were discovered and opened last year. One site preserves remains of a crested duck-billed hadrosaur, or lambeosaur. Another features fossils of the horned dinosaur Kosmoceratops. Yet another is producing bones of an as-yet unnamed giant crocodile. And the fourth is yielding beautifully preserved leaf fossils.

A fifth quarry, found during the week by Monument Paleontologist Alan Titus when he headed over a hill to relieve himself, was another duck-billed hadrosaur—this one a juvenile with abundant skin impressions. (The site may have been found independently last year by University of Utah student Katherine [Kat] Clayton and rediscovered by Titus, an invertebrate specialist who has become an ace dinosaur finder.) Alan and I spent three windy, but highly enjoyable days at the site, uncovering much of the skeleton. When I departed, we had not yet determined if the skull was present, but the bones are trending the right direction into the hill, so our fingers are crossed.

Monument Paleontologist Alan Titus with juvenile hadrosaur skeleton
We had cached some equipment and supplies over-winter at the lambeosaur quarry, and were surprised to find the cache ripped apart. A brief inspection revealed that a black bear was the culprit—perhaps a rowdy young male coming down from higher elevations in search of food. Despite more than a decade working in the area, for us this event was a Grand Staircase first. I’m afraid that that, other than some water, the bear did not find much to his liking. Together with the torn plastic water bottles, there was a (previously full) plastic gas container, now bearing multiple tooth punctures. And a bag of plaster was ripped open and dragged around the site, leaving an erratic alabaster trail. The event had occurred recently, as evidenced by the fresh plaster. And the bear left a calling card in the form of a large pile of feces.

The week also yielded some ancient feces, or “coprolites.” Small coprolites, usually attributed to crocodiles, are relatively common finds in the Kaiparowits Formation, but we had not found any clear evidence of dinosaur dung. It was Denver Museum paleobotanist Ian Miller who made the discovery. While out prospecting one day, Ian called me over to look at something strange—a large, isolated mass of convoluted black rock unlike anything else in the area. Ian speculated that it might be dinosaur coprolite and, having seen examples many years before in Montana, I realized that he was likely correct. We could see plenty of organic debris inside the irregular chunks of rock, and even some tunnel-like openings that may be dung beetle burrows. We will pass some samples onto the “Queen of Coprolites”, Karen Chin, at the University of Colorado, to nail down the identification. If we’re correct, Ian has discovered one of the largest known piles of dino poop!

Under Ian’s capable direction, we’re also getting a refined sense of the plants that lived alongside these dinosaurs, crocodiles, turtles and other creatures about 76 million years ago. This week, Ian’s crew collected hundreds of leaves from a single quarry, which will join thousands of others in the collections of the Denver Museum. Many of these leaves show evidence of insect damage, and we plan to undertake a study of these specimens to find out what kinds of insects were present. At another location, Ian and his Denver colleague, vertebrate paleontologist Joe Sertich, showed me a fossilized forest floor revealed in a river cutbank. Remarkably, ferns and other plants can be seen still standing vertically, preserved where they were buried by flooding sediments millions of years ago. We look forward to working up this site in the future.

Graduate student Joshua Lively with new turtle discovery
Back at the lambeosaur quarry, additional work yielded more bones of this giant crested hadrosaur. No skull yet, but we are hopeful here as well. In addition, while removing some of the overlying rock, University of Utah graduate student Jelle Wiersma uncovered a huge turtle shell, measuring about 80 cm in length. Turtle expert Josh Lively was on hand to make the excited identification—an unnamed species of the genus Neurankylus.

All in all it was an amazing week, and we were blessed for the most part with sunny skies. The persistent high winds, although a nuisance at times, kept the gnats down—an even greater blessing. Other natural wonders included assorted wildflowers, spectacular night skies, and an afternoon visit to camp from a young rattlesnake.

Badlands view from camp

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was the last major region of the lower 48 states to be mapped, and for good reason.  Today, this roughhewn and cliff strewn landscape is one of the last largely unexplored boneyards from the Age of Dinosaurs. We are fortunate to be among the first to unearth its many wonders. To date, more than two dozen new dinosaurs have been recovered from these rocks, along with fishes, amphibians, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, mammals, birds, plants, and other organisms [1]. I'll provide more updates in future posts.

1)   Sampson, S. D. 2012. Dinosaurs of the Lost Continent. Scientific American, March, 2012: 40-47.

Annular eclipse image: 
All other images by the author.


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