by Alan L. Titus, Ph.D., Monument Paleontologist
Seventy five million years ago southern Utah was a steamy tropical swamp on the east side of the lost continent of Laramidia. However, as the thumping of helicopter rotors faded into the distance and snow fell even harder on our intrepid crew of 11 researchers and volunteers from the BLM and the Utah Museum of Natural History, even I would be hard pressed to visualize that. I was currently feeling a strange mix of elation and doubt. We’d just been dropped into the middle of some of the remotest and fossil-rich country in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) with the mission of finding and collecting rare and scientifically priceless fossils. However, with bad weather setting in and no contact with the outside world possible except in emergencies, I wondered how the next 12 days would turn out. Fortunately, we were well prepared for most any weather and spirits were running high. As small drifts of snow started to pile up in footprints and other small depressions (it was the 9th of May), the extreme contrast of our present situation with what the rocks tell us Utah was like in the Cretaceous Period began to sink in. We were here to collect the remains of alligators and tropical turtles not seen alive in this part of the world for over 50 million years, yet finding them might become impossible if these blizzard-like conditions persisted.
The next day more ominous weather threatened but never materialized. It was time to put the thousands of pounds of plaster, water, burlap, and tools to work! Our team split up into four groups and headed off in four different directions, one to a new Utahceratops skull site, another to a site containing most of the skeleton of another new GSENM creature, Kosmoceratops. The third team, led by me, went off to collect the remains of a small (only six feet long!) alligator, and the fourth crew investigated the hips, legs, and tail of one of the largest Gryposaurus dinosaur specimens ever found that was sticking out of the bottom of an unnamed wash. Back-breaking work with picks, sledge hammers, shovels and chisels ensued to strip away the overlying protective layers of solid rock. At the end of each day we dragged ourselves back into camp, exhausted and starving, only to gorge ourselves on whatever was on the menu that night; pasta, Navajo tacos, grilled meats, etc.
After six days, the Utahceratops and alligator sites were finished, each yielding spectacular specimens. The giant Gryposaurus played out for different reasons; the rock was so hard that it defied even our diamond blade rock saws and we left it as we found it. However, the Kosmoceratops site continued to produce huge quantities of bone right up until the end of the trip, making it one of the best horned dinosaur quarries ever found in GSENM. As the worked progressed at each one of these sites, important clues about the life and death of each animal, including T-rex type teeth, turtle shell pieces, and fossil snails and clams, were recorded and photographed. Even the exact position of each bone was carefully mapped and recorded, just like it was an ancient crime scene.
When three of the sites were finished, some of the crew, including myself, turned their attention to the huge task of searching the vast badland expanses for new sites. Almost 1000 acres were surveyed by the end of the 12 days. New finds include a large tortoise shell, a small baby hadrosaur in skin impressions (to weathered to collect, but an amazing find), several partial ‘gators, a possible bird skeleton, and a substantially complete Velociraptor-type dinosaur. Overall, this trip out to the GSENM paleontological frontier was one of the most productive ever. It will be many months before all of the specimens collected are prepared and ready for scientific study. However, it is already clear that this investment in studying Utah’s past will pay big dividends to both scientists and the public.