Paleontologist’s diary: Helicopter survey trip
Editor’s note: How often does a scientist today get to say that he or she was the first to explore a given area? That’s exactly what a paleontology crew led by GSENM paleontologist Alan Titus did at the end of the 2010 field season. They were dropped by helicopter into an area of the Kaiparowits that no paleontologist had ever surveyed. And they found some cool stuff. Here’s Alan’s diary of the trip.
Monday, August 23
I drove TJ Patel (GeoCorp Intern) and myself out to Grosvenor to meet up with our helicopter ride. A Utah Museum of Natural History (UMNH) crew – Eric Lund, Deanna Brandau, Carrie Levitte – was already there. You could sense the excitement in each of the survey crew members as they waited their turn to fly in.
It may be only once or twice in a lifetime that a researcher gets the chance to be the very first one to explore an untouched area. It took five trips (three for gear, two for crew) to get us all in to our base camp.
Monument paleo tech Scott Richardson met us there (he’d hiked in, as he doesn’t like to fly) by 5 pm. We were surrounded by towering badlands to the north that looked very inviting, so off we went: Eric and the rest of the UMNH crew to the north, TJ and I to the west. To everyone’s surprise, the results were not stellar. A handful of isolated bones, a couple of non-salvageable turtles, and lots of microvertebrate material were all that anyone had to show for a half-day’s worth of hiking the parched outcrops.
Tuesday, August 24
We pushed the same direction we had gone Monday, but further north and west. Again, no luck. The day was a near total washout. At dinner that night, morale was running pretty low. We decided that the geology to the north might not be optimal for fossil preservation. This caused a change in plans. We decided instead to target the more subtle outcrops to the south and west. A grim thought hung in everyone’s minds as they settled in for the night. What if there really wasn’t much in the basin?
Wednesday, August 25
By 8:15 am, we were heading south and southwest. By 9 am, I’d found a lambeosaur hadrosaur, with the bones still articulated, or joined together. In the next 20 minutes, I found a ceratopsid site about 60 feet away. From there I found an excellent plant fossil
site, with palm fronds, araucarian conifers and sycamores. On the way back to camp, I found a nearly complete specimen of a new kind of crocodile sticking out of a small badland spur. Dozens of armor plates and a partial skull were right at the surface!
It turned out that Eric Lund of the Utah Museum was having similar results. He found a relatively complete horned dinosaur skull. While it’s too early to tell, Eric’s skull is probably a new specimen of the recently named species Utahceratops gettyi.
The trip was starting to look better. We celebrated in camp that night.
Thursday, August 26
I spent the entire day collecting on the crocodile. I sent TJ, Deanna and Carrie over to stabilize and winterize the lambeosaur and test my ceratopsid. Found more bone at the ceratopsid, but it was not conclusive. There was so much in situ croc material I ended up mapping the site, which took a lot longer than I expected. Returned to camp at 7:30 to hear that Scott Richardson had found a nearly complete skull of a centrosaur ceratopsid, followed later by the discovery of a nearly complete, articulated hadrosaur skeleton. In camp that night, Scott said, “That hadrosaur is the coolest site I’ve ever found!”
Friday, August 27
We were scheduled to fly out at two, and I still had lots to do on the croc, so I went straight over and finished collecting the near-surface stuff. I ended up with over 70 elements from the croc. I also left three vertebrae in place. There is clearly much more material going into the hill. Eric and Scott dug drainage ditches around their finds after capping them with a protective layer of plaster to ward off any effects of the coming winter. We flew out without incident, and our elated crew began to reflect. The basin we inventoried may be the most productive yet in that part of the Monument. We’re already planning for next year – collecting on the specimens we found and doing more inventory.
The area is so wild that in five days of inventory the only sign of previous human presence was a handful of 50- to 60 year-old cowboy camps and occasional scatters of stone flakes, probably dating to the early archaic period (4,000-8,000 years ago).
I can’t emphasize enough how successful this trip was, given our limited time and staff. It was outstanding; well worth the effort!
— Alan Titus