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Want to go hunting for dinosaur bones? Here’s what to expect.

July 22 , 2016

by Brian Switek

Who doesn’t want to find a dinosaur?

Given that early-onset dinomania is an American cultural institution reinforced by museum visits and summer blockbusters, many of us could say that stumbling across the perfectly articulated remains of an ancient monstrosity would be a childhood dream come true. Maybe that’s why some see paleontologists as overgrown kids, running around the desert as if it’s an enormous sandbox.

If you walk into the badlands thinking that finding a dinosaur is going to be as easy as the opening act of "Jurassic Park" makes it look, though, your delusion will quickly evaporate into the bone-dry air.

When the field day starts depends on the crew. But when you wake up is set by the light. Even if staying snug in your sleeping bag for five more minutes is tempting, as soon as the sun starts to rise you start to feel the walls of your tent warm up. Wait too long, and you’ll bake yourself like a potato wrapped in REI gear. So, given that you’re probably miles away from the nearest shower, you'll make do with some baby wipes, dress, and crawl outside, hoping to get your boots on the outcrop before the heat can catch you.

The course of the day is determined by the tasks at hand. Sometimes a crew will work a quarry discovered by a previous expedition. It can take years to free a dinosaur from the stone, and some field crews will spend an entire season or more with the back-breaking task of removing overburden. This is the nonfossiliferous rock on top of the dinosaur — a geologic wrapper covering the scientific prize — and in remote places, it can be busted up only with pick and shovel. If you can’t remind yourself that this is all for the team and the greater good, you’ll very quickly question why you trekked out into the desert oven in the first place.

Even when the debris is shoveled away, quarry work is delicate and slow. There's no gratifying moment of wrenching a fossil free from ancient dirt. Instead, you must leave bones encased in a rind of stone. You’re not going to see very much of the dinosaur you’re carefully excavating, swaddling in plaster-soaked-burlap and hauling out — it's only later, safe in a lab, that someone will painstakingly free the fossil from its rocky shell.

Most every crew has stories of serendipitous discoveries — someone who found an Allosaurus during a pee break, a runaway lens cap that led to a bonebed, and so on — but more often than not, you’re going to slather on sunscreen, load up as much water as you can carry without snapping your spine, and wander into the desert in the hope that nothing goes wrong. You’re not going to scuff your boot on a perfect Triceratops skull, empty eye socket staring back at you. What you’re looking for are shards of shattered bones that, if you’re lucky, will act like a trail of bread crumbs as you follow them to a bone sticking out of the rock. Sometimes you’ll find something intact — maybe a skeleton rests inside — but other times you’ll find a bone that has been broken apart by decades of erosion. Paleontologists call this Chunkasaurus, the most common species found on such expeditions:

I'm headed back to the Jurassic on Tuesday. These are a few fragments I found last year that led me to some interesting bones in the eastern Utah desert. I can't wait to see what dinosaur is hiding in the rock!

No dinosaur hunter’s resolve goes untested. While there are few feelings that can compete with the rush of endorphins upon finding a promising fossil, most of a fossil hunt is spent dealing with blazing temperatures, unrelenting sunlight, sudden thunderstorms, ravenous hordes of insects and, depending on camp culture, blinding hangovers — all during expeditions that require both luck and scientific skill.

Of course, not all fieldwork is dangerously strenuous. Some quarries are accessible by car and boast developed campgrounds with hot showers, the greatest luxury a paleontologist can imagine. Other quarries are close enough to civilization that field crews can easily pop out for a barbecue lunch before digging back in for the afternoon. But these places still require back-breaking labor and an attention to detail that the gotta-catch-'em-all mind-set of most children can’t cope with. It's not like kicking around in a sandbox. Fieldwork ends with the word "work" for a reason.

Still, every year, warming temperatures draw field crews out from their homes and academic posts in search of something new. And even in hardship, there are rewards. In the desert, with time laid out before you in colorful hills devoid of human presence other than your own, losing blood, sweat and tears is just part of the job — a sacrifice required to raise the Mesozoic dead.



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