Striking Gold!

2008 could not come fast enough to return to our new locality in the Morrison Formation near Hanksville, Utah. The initial 2007 prospecting visit to this location was a complete success. There was so much weathered bone lying out you could literally shovel the “float” into a bushel basket. 

During the second weekend of May 2008, we returned and checked in with our friends at the Henry Mountain Field Station office. After touching base with them, we set up the quarry with air compressors in order to run small pneumatic tools that would remove the hard sandstone/conglomerate. We also brought out small generators to run fans should the infamous Utah gnats get to be too much, and we set up a large carport-tent to get a little R and R during the day. We were also fortunate that the Hanksville Mayor, Curtis Whipple, loaned us a 20 foot trailer to store our field supplies in.  As soon as all the site prep was done, we commenced to finding dinosaur bone.

To say we hit pay dirt almost immediately would be an understatement. The volunteers that we had began digging some exploratory, ‘test” excavation pits where they found lots of bone weathering out, or any in situ material. At the end of the first day we had discovered and partially excavated over thirty bones. These bones included: femora (upper leg bones); humeri (upper arm bones); ribs; and vertebrae. By the end of the first week we had over 100 bones discovered and mapped in. As the excitement and new discoveries at the site continued, I would make frequent reports to the BLM at the Henry Mountain Field Station Office and send emails to the Salt Lake Office. I was becoming more and more convinced that this was a dinosaur bonebed- and not of just any dinosaurs, but mostly my favorites, the sauropods. We were able to identify skeletal elements in substantial quantity to the following sauropods: Barosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and possible Apatosaurus.  We may have even found some isolated elements to a Stegosaurus and a partially articulated mid-sized theropod…Allosaurus perhaps? 

Every day there were several, if not dozens, of new bones found. Soon after, the Salt Lake, Richfield, and Hanksville BLM, along with Dr. Jim Kirkland of the Utah Geological Survey, and the College of Eastern Utah, came for a visit to confirm the size and scope of the locality. After the magnitude of the bone-bearing layer was established, it was decided we would call this new sauropod dominated bonebed the “Hanskville-Burpee Quarry”.  Press releases were sent to Utah media and before we knew it we had the Salt Lake Tribune, Fox, ABC, and NBC affiliates from Salt Lake down for interviews.  It was a great ride and we were still finding lots of bones, which was also a plus. All that PR helped get the discovery of the locality listed as a “Top Ten Fossil Find” of 2008 by National Geographic. 

We spent over six weeks working the quarry the initial year and had discovered approximately 200 bones, many of which were either closely associated or sometimes articulated.  We had time to follow the bone bearing exposures and found it extended for nearly a quarter mile to the north east. This was truly a giant bonebed of Dinosaur National Monument proportions, and it had a story to tell. 

As paleontologists we need to find, excavate, prepare, and research this material. In addition, we need to closely study the geology of a site like this. To tell this story, important questions need to be answered. Questions like: how did these dinosaur carcasses end up here; what happened to them after they died; what was the environment like- was this a river, lake, or something else; and more. By carefully looking at all the evidence, we should be able to say something of substance about this site.

We are now starting our fifth summer at the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry and I can tell you there is no sign of the quarry “running out of bones”. We have collected several partial specimens, adding up to approximately five tons worth of dinosaur bones, which we are now working on preparing in the lab. In fact, just in the last two days we discovered over a dozen new bones to a couple sauropods. One specimen (which appears to be fairly complete) is a juvenile Diplodocus, maybe only a third grown. We have also been collecting sediment samples, mapping the distribution and orientation of the bones, and studying the surrounding stratigraphy in order to tell the Hanksville-Burpee Story. 

We have some preliminary data that we can share with you.  It is a sauropod dominated site, meaning the vast majority of bones belong to these gigantic late Jurassic dinosaurs. Most of the skeletal elements seem rather small for a full grown sauropod.  For example a big Apatosaurus femur can be over six feet in length. Our biggest femur is only about five feet long; most have been around four feet. In fact all the elements are smallish. This might indicate the majority of these specimens are juveniles or sub-adults. Also, based on the fine sandstone and overlying conglomerate that repeats itself, this appears to be a river channel that had sand bars within the system. The river would occasionally flood, and carcasses would get buried. It also appears that we are within the upper half of the Brushy Basin (uppermost member of the Morrison).  However, all of this is preliminary. We still have a lot of work to do. More specimens means more data, and more data means we can provide a more accurate and reliable story to pass on to you.

So, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story” has still yet to be told. Come back and visit as we continue our work at the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry this summer. I will be posting pictures, updates on new finds, information about our tours, and much more.  See you soon!


One thought on “Striking Gold!

  1. “….a partially articulated mid-sized theropod…Allosaurus perhaps? ”

    I hope not. I mean, Allosaurus is one of my favorite prehistoric critters, but i want to know more about the other theropods of the Jurassic. I think the Morrision carnivore fauna is one of the greatest riddles of paleontology: why does one predator dominate the fossil record when we know there was a very diverse carnivore guild at the time.

    “See you soon!”

    I wish. We passed through Hansville last summer on the way to vernal. But you guys were long gone by that time.

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