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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Dinosaur National Monument

Updated on March 30, 2010

To get to the dinosaurs at Dinosaur National Monument, you first have to pass by the yellow, knuckle-like knolls of an ancient seafloor. After entering the monument's western gate, you'll see dramatically titled red and gray beds beside the road, which means you've gone farther back in time, roughly 145 million years, to the Jurassic. Dinosaurs await just a short drive uphill. And what a drive it is, and what a magnificent panorama will await you at the top!

From the initial discovery in 1909 of eight Apatosaurus vertebrae, these beds have harbored one of the most diverse dinosaur assortments of any site in the 700,000-square-mile Morrison Formation, a geologic unit that has spawned excavations of more than a hundred dinosaur quarries. Ten kinds of dinosaurs were swept up in floods and deposited deep in a streambed at the site of the monument's Carnegie Quarry. About 400 individuals have already been removed, mostly to build the vast collection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Today, you can still gape at some 1,600 dinosaur bones left exposed in the quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument. For those used to complete skeletons mounted in museum halls, the scattered and battered bones here, half entombed and half excavated, create a dramatic tableau of death. Lay a hand on a bone from one of the Jurassic giants, gleaming with preservative coating. Feel the concrete-hard sandstone matrix around it. Imagine the work that went into uncovering and removing all those fossils; then imagine doing it by hand, without power tools, hauling 350 tons of plaster-coated bones in mule- and horse-drawn carts, and taking them 50 miles to the nearest eastward-bound railroad.

No longer hauled off to museums, these massive bones, frozen in time, have become the museum. They teach a lesson that the raw data of palaeontology doesn't come easily. The idea for the world's first in situ fossil exhibit was championed by palaeontologists Earl Douglass, who discovered the quarry in 1909 and dug here until 1922, when funding dried up following the death of his benefactor, Andrew Carnegie. The near-vertical tilt to the ancient streambed made a natural wall, 50 feet high and as long as a football field, around which to build a visitor center. President Woodrow Wilson dedicated the monument in 1915, and it was expanded to its present size of 330 square miles in 1938 to encompass the canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers.

Until recently, palaeontologists in hard hats perched on the wall, exposing more bone bit by bit. But because this quarry has yielded most of its bounty, staff palaeontologists have turned their attention elsewhere. A recent field survey of the monument turned up more than 400 fossil sites: not just dinosaurs but some of the oldest and best-preserved frogs, salamanders, lizards, crocodiles, and mammals. A pretty complete skeleton of a new species of Allosaurus was dug up a half-mile from the visitor center, and a separate early Cretaceous quarry now under excavation contained a rare pair of brontosaur skulls.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Dinosaur National Monument, Part 2

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