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Museum scientists on hunt for new dinosaur

July 10 , 2016

by Holly Kozelsky

Virginia Museum of Natural History staff are excavating dinosaur fossils for almost three weeks in Wyoming. They are (front center) Dr. Alex Hastings, Dr. Kal Ivanov (second from left) and Ray Vodden (right). They are being joined by a professor and six students from Lynchburg College and a few other volunteers. The fossils they bring back to Virginia will be stored and studied at VMNH.

Contributed photo

Dr. Brooke Haiar (left) of Lynchburg College and Dr. Kal Ivanov of the Virginia Museum of Natural History wrap a sauropod foot bone called a metatarsal in a plaster jacket. The bone is wrapped in a protective coating, such as layers of toilet paper, then covered in burlap soaked in plaster. When the plaster dries, it forms a protective covering to safely transport fossils back to the laboratory with little danger of breaking.

Contributed photo

Dr. Kal Ivanov takes photographs at a harvester ant mound. Harvester ants place small objects around their mounds. When their mounds are located near fossil sites, tiny fossils surround their mounds. Paleontologists long have known that locating harvester ant mounds is a convenient way of locating deposits of fossils, but little is known about the ants. Ivanov, a specialist in ants, is on the dig in Wyoming to study them.

Scientists from the Virginia Museum of Natural History are on an excavation in Wyoming, digging up the fossilized bones of a dinosaur to bring back to the museum to study.

They are Dr. Alex Hastings, Assistant Curator of Paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH); Dr. Kal Ivanov, Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Zoology; and Ray Vodden, paleontology research technician and laboratory manager.

They are joined by Dr. Brooke Haiar of Lynchburg College, who has excavated at the site on and off for 10 years, five Lynchburg College students and a few other volunteers, Hastings said.

The crew are camping in Graybull, Wyoming, about a 30-minute drive from the excavation site in Shell, Wyoming, “in the middle of nowhere,” Hastings said.

The ridge where they are digging is on federal property, managed by the United States Bureau of Land Management. The site where they are taking out what’s left of the dinosaur is about 20 feet by 15 feet.

“All dinosaurs are exciting finds,” Hastings said, adding that it is marvelous to “be able to understand these bizarre and awesome giants of the past.”


They are digging up the fossil of a sauropod, a long-necked dinosaur.

The sauropod dates back about 120 million years, from the Jurassic Period, in the middle part of the Mesozoic Era – “the Age of the Dinosaurs,” Hastings said.

They aren’t sure yet of the exact genus. It’s looking like it could be an Apatosaurus, Hastings said – they’ll only be able to figure that out after they study the fossil in detail, back at the laboratory.

The excavation is in partnership with Lynchburg College. Haiar has been involved with the Shell excavation in the 10 years it’s been going on, Hastings said. A group goes there almost every year.

Haiar had encountered this particular sauropod fossil before – she was last there in 2014 – and on this trip she and the crew are finding new parts of the skeleton, he added.

The dinosaur they are digging out “has been known (about) for over 100 years,” Hastings said, “but it’s something you don’t ever get a complete” skeleton for during excavations, only some bones.

This one probably will come out incomplete as well, but it already has some important parts that the existing sauropod fossil skeletons don’t have – for example, “a really important bone in the ankle.”

By finding bones that have not been found before in other excavations of the same dinosaur, “we’re able to help flesh out these animals,” he said.

In fact, Hastings added, there is “a chance that this is a new species.” They won’t know until the bones have been studied thoroughly, back in the lab at VMNH.

Since the dinosaur was so big, it “takes a lot of time to work through ginoromous bones,” he said.

Safe packaging

To bring the bones back to Virginia, they are being safely packed in plaster jackets. Strips of burlap are dipped in plaster and wrapped around a bone. A barrier, such as newspaper, toilet paper or aluminum foil, first is wrapped around the bone so the plaster won’t stick to it. A plaster jacket “creates a custom-made protective shell” around each fossil bone, Hastings said.

They’ve done about half a dozen plaster jackets so far, he estimated, and should get another half a dozen before they leave.

“We want to get out as much of this skeleton as we possibly can in the time that we’ve got” – a little over two weeks, Hasting said. They arrived June 21 and will leave on July 9.

If they don’t get all of it, they will be able to return for more another time, according to their understanding with the Bureau of Land Management, he said. They have to go through a permitting process each time they go, but Haiar has been doing it so long that the paperwork isn’t too cumbersome.

Camping and working in 100 degrees

Funding from Memorial Hospital of Martinsville and Bassett Furniture allowed them “to rent a truck (Dodge Ram 2500) that can handle rough roads and carrying lots of heavy stuff out,” Hastings said. The drive there took two and a half days.

It’s hot in Wyoming – “it got over 100 several days,” and a few times “was a nice, even, cool 85.” The paleontologists just suffer through the heat with plenty of water and sunscreen.

They can’t go earlier in the year, when temperatures are cooler, because since digs general depend on the help of students and professors, they need to work around the academic calendar, he said. Also, they need the increased hours of daylight summer provides to get a lot done.

The crew dig all day and return to their site each evening. Most of them are staying in tents. Haiar is staying in a cabin with air conditioning – which is important to store the glue for the plaster jackets.

“We need a lot of glue to keep these bones safe,” Hastings said. The glue would dry out in the intense heat of a Wyoming summer if not left in a climate-controlled area.

In other excavations he has done, Hastings has stayed “in far more stark conditions,” he said. This one has cell phone reception, bathrooms and showers.

They have a camp cook who prepares their meals. The cook “is a very experienced cook” from Colorado who is interested in paleontology, Hastings said. She charges “a very reasonable fee” for the meal preparations, and when she’s not working on meals, she helps them dig.

Giant dinosaurs, tiny ants

The researchers are hoping to learn about more than just the dinosaur: also the harvester ant.

This ant, which is common out West, “picks up small things and puts them around its mound,” Hastings said. When their mounds are near areas with fossils, they are surrounded by tiny fossils. Looking for mounds surrounded by those tiny fossils is a trick paleontologists have had for many, many years in finding dig sites, “far more productive that looking for them on our own,” he said.

However, “not a lot of studies have been done on” the ants, he added.

When Hastings has told Ivanov before about the practice of finding dig sites based on harvester ant leavings, Ivanov was intrigued, because his specialty is ants.

Ivanov joined them on this trip to study the harvester ants, so that will be a second type of research to come out of this trip, according to Hastings.




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