Today’s post is by Dr. Mike D’Emic. He is an adjunct curator at Burpee Museum and is the Principal Investigator at the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry in Hanksville, Utah. To learn more about Dr. D’Emic and his research, visit his website.
“This is going to take decades.” That was the thought that went through my mind after a week spent digging up dinosaurs at the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry. Dinosaur bone is so abundant here that the area holds the potential to be one of the largest dinosaur quarries in the country, if not the world. Last year I visited the quarry for just two days – not enough time for much more than a tour facilitated by the Bureau of Land Management as I took over the role of primary investigator for the quarry. Learning that I would be able to direct research at an impressively large quarry full of similarly impressive dinosaurs was pretty exciting for me, but previous fieldwork committments last year meant that I could only make a brief stay. This year gave me a little more time to plan, and I made it out for an entire week (again cut too short by other fieldwork, as I type this en route to another dig, this one in Wyoming). Working at the quarry fits perfectly with my research interests – the focus of my PhD was on the evolution of a group of dinosaurs called sauropods – the long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs most familiar to the public in general as the “Brontosaurus” kind, and to my generation in particular as the “Littlefoot” kind. The Hanksville-Burpee Quarry contains no fewer than 14 juvenile sauropods, so the chance to do research on this material has been a priceless opportunity.
Volunteer Joe Mongan works on excavation of a sauropod pelvis from “Limb Bone Ridge”.
The discoveries at the quarry this past week have continued to impress me, and I’m already looking forward to next year. So far we’ve found bones from larger sauropod individuals than had been found before at the quarry, our first sauropod pelvis, some rare theropod (meat-eater) material, and the rarest find of all – an armored dinosaur that would have been a precursor to the famous tank-like, club-tailed Ankylosaurus. By the end of the season, nearly 400 plaster jackets will have been removed over the past seven years of work at the quarry, with each jacket holding one or more bones. All of this feels more impressive in light of the fact that less than 1% of the immediate area that seems to bear fossils here has been excavated!
The Hanksville-Burpee Quarry has attracted visitors and researchers from all over the world – just this week we had visitors from Poland, India, Bangladesh, and Egypt, among others. The accessibility of the quarry means that researchers can come and visit for just a few days – we also hosted graduate students and professors from several US colleges, including Dr. Allison Beck from Blackhawk Community College, who was part of several important dinosaur digs in Africa in the late 1990s-early 2000s. We were also paid a visit from science writer Brian Switek, who was excited to find the the small patch of bone he discovered last year has since been uncovered to reveal the nearly complete sauropod pelvis mentioned above. (Check out Brian’s blog about his visit to HBDQ!)
Work at the quarry was a mix of frenetic and zen – sometimes it seems like there are a few dozen things on the “immediate” to do list, while other times you can sit for hours chipping away at the same patch of rock, trying to free a particular bone. All that chipping gave me time to think, and I mostly thought about time. The special perspective that geology gives us is that of time: “deep time,” as we call it in the lingo of the field. Geologists and paleontologists not only have to think about the dimensions in space that connect patterns and processes, but also appropriate dimensions in time. I spent a lot of time thinking about how old these dinosaurs were when they died, about how long they sat on the plains adjacent to the river before some large storm or flood washed them into the channel, about how far they tumbled and bashed each other traveling down that channel, and how long they’ve sat in the rock until we came along with our tools to unearth them. And of course, I thought about the daunting amount of time it will take to uncover and study all of these bones, in what is shaping up to someday be one of the largest dinosaur graveyards in the world. It all amounts to a great puzzle that will no doubt inspire questions for years to come, and I’m already looking forward to getting back to Hanksville for next year’s dig.