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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Dig We Must

Updated on March 30, 2010

The program, which lasts for a minimum of one week, is fairly rigorous. After a 7 a.m. breakfast, campers leave for the field to prospect, excavate, or study the surrounding fauna and flora until about 4 p.m. Evenings and rainy days are spent working on previously collected specimens in the field station laboratory. At least three professional staff members are on site at all times.

Earthwatch Institute, in Watertown, Massachusetts, organizes dinosaur research expeditions to Argentina and other palaeontology expeditions to England, Switzerland, Australia, China, and Mexico. Known for its harsh beauty, Argentina's Ischigualasto Basin, also called the Valley of the Moon, is five miles wide, 40 miles long, and 3,000 feet above sea level. Red cliffs rise from a sandstone and claystone floor that contains a continuous sequence of fossils from the middle through late Triassic. Discoveries include a nearly complete Herrerasaurus skeleton, plus the bones of early reptiles such as rhynchosaurs, cynodonts, aetosaurs, protochampids, and dicynodonts which predate the arrival of the first dinosaurs. Data collected here may eventually shed light on a mass extinction of reptiles that occurred in the middle Triassic.

Volunteers prospect for fossils in groups of two to four, mark locations, map localities, gather and wash sediments, excavate, and cover specimens in plaster. Some team members explore new areas by backpack. Evenings are spent chopping firewood, cooking, discussing the day's work, writing in field logs, and classifying and cataloging specimens.

The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, operates a seven-day structured learning program at Egg Mountain. Part of the Two Medicine Formation, Egg Mountain is on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Teams have discovered several dinosaur rookeries in the reddish-brown sediment, with six-foot nests containing eggs the size of cantaloupes and even some hatchlings. These fossils provided the first evidence that dinosaurs nested together. There is also an enormous bone bed of broad-beaked Maiasaura peeblesorum.

Like most other field experiences, this program allows participants to prospect for dinosaurs, do small tool and hard rock excavation, and collect geologic data from the arid plains. The week begins and ends at the Museum of the Rockies, where exhibits tell the story of Egg Mountain and Maiasaura, the "good mother lizard." There are also lectures, slide shows, discussions, and assorted other programs. Field trips include a visit to Pine Butte Swamp Preserve, a habitat for grizzly bears. This program offers academic credit through Antioch College in Washington.

In New Mexico, home to one of the world's most complete Mesozoic fossil records, Triassic dinosaurs and their contemporaries are buried in ancient streambeds beneath dramatic red-rock mesas. A program by Mesa Technical College provides an overview of the basic field, laboratory, and museum methods used to study fossils. Students learn how to prospect, excavate, clean, stabilize, and catalog specimens, and they get hands-on experience in molding and casting fossils. Throughout the course there are lectures and plenty of handouts. The program isn't all work and no play; there are two scheduled social events and a field trip to a site rich in dinosaur footprints.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Get Certified

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    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      To be a dinosaur? Yeah, it is. We're very misunderstood. People look at us and figure that we're big and scary and scaly and have great gangly teeth and claws, but we're really cuddly and sensitive and emo. :)

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      That'd be cool!

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      I just loooooooooooooove dinosaurs. Must be because I am one! :)

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 7 years ago

      You perk up my imagination with information like this about dinosaurs.