Over the last decade, Burpee Museum has made some significant paleontological discoveries like Jane, our juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex; Homer and the first Triceratops bonebed; and possibly new small Permian tetrapods from Oklahoma- but none were bigger (literally) than the discovery of what is now known as the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry.
By the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007 I was itching to begin a new paleontological program for Burpee. Ever since I was a young boy the dinosaurs that fascinated me the most were the sauropods. These were the long necked/tailed, quadrupedal, herbivorous giants of the Mesozoic. I can remember my family taking me to the Field Museum in Chicago and I was mesmerized by the size and grandeur of the mounted Apatosaurus. In fact, I clearly remember sitting in front of the skeleton for what seemed like hours, trying to imagine how this animal moved, ate, and interacted with other Apatosaurus’. In actuality, it was probably 10 minutes at best, but I was a kid and that’s pretty good for a kid. Anyhow, ever since that time, sauropods have been my favorite group of dinosaurs. I routinely roll my eyes anytime I see a book or documentary that shows a poor Apato or Diplodocus getting waylaid by some Allosaurus. I’m pretty certain that from time to time these gigantic dinosaurs got the better of these sneaky theropods. In fact, there needs to be more reconstructions done where a sauropod is “stomping a mudhole” in a theropod, but I am wandering into a rant.
Anyhow, I wanted to get a mountable sauropod for the museum- for all the reasons above, and because sauropods are just amazing to behold. So where do you find sauropods? Well, various sauropod families can be found in the right Jurassic and Cretaceous strata in North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, Madagascar, and so on. Since my expeditions budget prohibits any international jaunts, best to stick to home. One of the best, if not THE best, locality in North America to find sauropods is within the famous Morrison Formation of the western United States. The Morrison Formation records the last of the late Jurassic Period, or approximately 150 to 144 million years ago. It is known as an extremely fossiliferous formation and paleontologists have been collecting dinosaurs from the Morrison Formation since the late 1880’s. Well known dinosaurs like Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Ceratosaurus have been found in the Morrison within states like Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana.
To get a better sense of where to look, I began sending emails and calling Morrison workers. I received great tips from Dr. John Foster from the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, Colorado and Mike Getty from University of Utah; and in a round-about way, began talking to Dr. Jim Kirkland, Utah State Paleontologist. Dr. Kirkland was a great resource and is nearly a walking encyclopedia of Utah Geology and Paleontology. After a serious conversation, he strongly suggested I look at the Morrison Formation around the town of Hanksville, Utah. There was a lot of the Brushy Basin member (a subset of the overall Morrison) exposed north and south of Hanksville. The Brushy Basin is a series of fluvial (or river) deposits like mudstone, clays, siltstones and sandstones. Large dinosaurs like sauropods had a better chance of being buried after they died in a system like this.
As usual, funding was tight, but my aunt and uncle were able to make a small donation to the “exploratory trip”, along with a donation from then museum Director Lew Crampton. We also needed to work with the Bureau of Land Management Office in Salt Lake City to obtain the proper permits to conduct “limited survey and collecting”. Once the funding and permits were in place, we were off to visit Hanksville. As luck would have it, the town had a BLM Field Station Office (Henry Mountain Field Station) and we checked in. We met the BLM Geologist (now retired) Francis “Buzz” Rakow and explained what we were interested in. Immediately Buzz began talking about a locality north of town that he had been to where there was petrified wood and lots of dinosaur bone weathering out. He offered to show it to us and we immediately took him up on the offer.
The next day we headed north, and after only about 10 miles we came to a couple large sandstone/conglomerate exposures. As soon as we got out of our vehicles we began seeing weathered bone nearly everywhere. Buzz walked us around the area and after we adjusted to the sensory overload of bone fragment everywhere, we commenced to trying to find in situ bone. Almost immediately we began seeing bone coming out of every hillside. We even saw partially articulated bones, like vertebral columns. After just a few hours of poking around, we knew that this was potentially a big dinosaur bonebed. We spent a few more days in the area, checking out other outcrops, but deep down we knew that the first site Buzz showed us was the best.
We headed back to Rockford and, as we did six years before with the Hell Creek, began to formulate our return to Hanksville and big surprises for 2008!