Young paleontoligists hunt for bones on dinosaur adventure

08 September 2007 | 07:38 Code : 15191 Geoscience events
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He wasn't the only one. A group of parents and their dinosaur-loving kids were...

  He wasn't the only one. A group of parents and their dinosaur-loving kids were winding up a weeklong study of the prehistoric creatures in western Colorado. They had left their homes on the East and WestCoasts -- and Texas -- to spend a week trekking through desert, climbing rocks and cliffs, and digging in the dirt while baking under a relentless sun in search of bones that would reveal the actual life of an allosaurus. This was a dream trip for my son Christopher and the other young people. For my husband and me, it was a trip that first had us wondering where we had left our brains. By the end of the week, we agreed it had been a fabulous vacation that created a thousand memories. Christopher saw the trip description -- Colorado Paleontology Studies -- in a JohnsHopkinsUniversityCenter for Talented Youth brochure and pasted it into his brain. He wouldn't lose the idea and eventually I overheard him telling friends that he was going to dig for dinosaur bones in Colorado this summer. In May, my husband and I decided we'd better check into it and learned they still had room for us. Dinosaur Discovery was centered at Grand Junction, Colo., and taught by Jonathan Cooley and Stephanie Matlock. Cooley studied geology and paleontology and completed his thesis on the world-famous Morrison Formation. He has led family programs for several years and also has conducted numerous groups to fossil sites in Alaska, Mongolia, Argentina and Mexico. He took the assignment of trying to drill the dinosaur information into the parents' heads and to impart his enthusiasm for the subject. In charge of the younger explorers was Matlock, a biologist who teaches at Mesa State College in Grand Junction. Her degrees are in biology, anthropology and wildlife biology. During the first evening's get-acquainted dinner, I learned other families had come from Washington, California, New York, Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey. And there we were: Texas. That evening signaled the week to come. After dinner and introductions, Cooley pulled out fossils and began teaching. Before the session was over, we were told to be ready to leave on vans the next morning by 8:30. Any idea I'd had of sleeping in vanished. By 10 the next morning, I was sure I had lost my mind. We had been driven over rocky roads that even pack mules would have refused to travel to the "bone yard" at the Split Rock dinosaur area. There was no sign of a cloud in the sky and the thermometer read more than 90 degrees. Matlock took the young students off on one trail, explaining the Morrison Formation and ways to distinguish bone from rock. Cooley took the parents on another trail, explaining the area's geology, how the Colorado Plateau was uplifted from sea level 20 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the area and what species they were. We hiked across dirt and rocks, Cooley stopping to explain the era and to note that possibly 400 species of dinosaurs have been found in the area. "We're going through the life history of a bone this week," he said. Dinosaurs inhabited the area during the Jurassic Period, and some weighed up to 80 tons. Climbing on various boulders, Cooley pointed out the imprints left by dinosaur bones. "The original mineral of bone is still there," he said, explaining that the best way to determine if a piece of rock has bone in it is to "lick it." I thought I was going to be digging for dinosaur bones; instead, I was going to be licking for them. We finally spied our young explorers standing on a cliff 30 feet above us. While climbing up to meet them and stopping to get energy for the next level, my husband and I looked at each other with the thought, "Christopher will owe us for this one of these days." The next stop that day was the DinosaurJourneyMuseum and views of reconstructed dinosaurs from bones found in the area. Capping the day was a stop in the ColoradoNational Monument, a 20,000-acre National Park site encompassing spectacular steep-walled red rock canyons. Back at the hotel after that first day the parents collapsed -- hot, sweaty and exhausted. Meanwhile, the explorers finished out the day in the swimming pool and at the ping-pong table. The next day the group headed out to the GrandValley for a stop at West Creek, where everyone cooled off in the clear water. The afternoon was another warm experience making rubbings of dinosaur tracks captured forever in rocks. Finally, on the next day Christopher saw his dream turn into reality by digging in a quarry in search of real dinosaur bones. Our Johns Hopkins adventure was the first group this summer to pull out the brushes and chisels in the Mygatt-Moore Quarry. Discovered in 1981, this location appears to have been a watering hole for dinosaurs, according to Cooley. Numerous large bones have been uncovered at this site, including the 6-foot long Apatosaurus backbone that was being unearthed by Richard Bley about 30 feet from our site. As a large section was unearthed, a burlap and plaster "jacket" was fashioned over the bone, protecting it for removal to a museum. The students didn't hesitate. They dug right in, finding fossils of plants and invertebrates. One parent (a high school teacher from New York City) uncovered a dinosaur vertebrae a few minutes after starting his dig. Chiseling away, one woman asked, "How will I know if I find a bone?" Another parent answered, "I'm not licking this desert to find out." My efforts only uncovered plant fossils. Christopher, however, was diligent under the blazing sun and by late afternoon had dug out several small pieces of dinosaur fossils, verified by Cooley. That day was the highlight for him. The next step in dinosaur bone recovery was taken the next day as the group returned to the DinosaurJourneyMuseum prep lab where Cooley explained the arduous process in continuing the digging process. The jacketed bones brought in from quarries are turned over and volunteers slowly release it from the remaining rock and dirt. One volunteer said she had been working two months on a Sauropod vertebrae, which weighed 50 to 60 pounds. From there, the group traveled to Gaston Design Studio, where casts of the bones are made and then resin copies are produced. These resin bone copies then are assembled into what paleontologists envisioned as the dinosaur. If a piece is missing, according to Bob Gaston, he has to re-construct it from what he knows about bones. After another trip up winding caliche roads with teeth-clinching views, the group stopped at 9,000-foot DouglasPass for an afternoon of digging for plant and invertebrate fossils. It was another great day, in Christopher's view, as he hunched over rocks and pounded with his chisel and hammer. Then came the last day, which started with a van ride at 8 a.m. to the raft launch site on the Colorado River. The 26-mile trip wound through Ruby and HorsethiefCanyons with spectacular views of canyon walls carved out by water millions of years ago and the sightings of two nests of bald eagles. At a lunch stop on a narrow sandy beach, numerous explorers jumped off the 25-foot black rock cliffs into the river. When the trip ended in Utah, everyone headed back to a state park in Grand Junction for a last gathering and goodbyes. The young dinosaur diggers spent the rest of the day in the Colorado River while parents ate barbecue and talked about the week and their lives back home. It was one last chance to share the camaraderie and strengthen the bonds of friendship. As the setting sun sent rays of orange and yellow and pink into the sky over the Colorado River, the families hugged one last time, reluctant not only to see the day end but the closing of the dinosaur adventure.

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