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Lehi palentologist shares passion for dinosaurs, waits for Utahraptors to be unearthed

July 26 , 2016

Each step visitors take past exhibits of dinosaurs in the Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi represents passing through millions of years of time.

But from where Rick Hunter stands in the paleontology lab, he straddles the line between the present and the far distant past.

Several gigantic slabs of rock embedded with dinosaur bones waiting to be uncovered sit behind Hunter, who was an essential part of building the museum and continues to be key to its maintenance and reputation.

Hunter said paleontology is an important field to keep investing time, interest and work into because there’s still so much to learn.

“I have people coming in and they say, ‘Haven't we found everything? Aren’t all the dinosaurs discovered by now?’ No,” he said. “Every time it rains, every time we have the freeze and thaw cycle new things are being exposed and some of those things are new to science.”

Hunter, who grew up in American Fork, said he always liked dinosaurs and their history.

“I started out just as a kid really loving dinosaurs,” he said. “I started collecting fossils at a young age and I haven’t stopped basically.”

Hunter said he originally started out studying archaeology, but the intense detail and small scale focus required in the fieldwork didn’t match what he was interested in.

“I wanted to do something that was a little more 'throw the dirt over your shoulder' kind of digging that you do with fieldwork in dinosaur digs,” he said

Hunter said the thrill of discovery is his favorite part of the job and what keeps him in the field.

“All of a sudden a discovery will be made that blows your mind. I mean, we’ve been hunting dinosaurs for 150 years now and we are still discovering brand new things.”

One of the gigantic blocks of sandstone in Hunter’s lab certainly has the potential to bring that thrill of discovery and has already contributed new theories about a rare dinosaur, the Utahraptor.

The 9-ton block was delivered to the museum last year, but since then very little progress has been made to unearth what Hunter and other paleontologists suspect is a family of Utahraptors.

Despite the slow progress of the work, several notable theories and questions have emerged, Hunter said. The bones inside show a wide range of ages of dinosaurs, which raises questions about how the dinosaurs traveled and their family dynamic.

“That’s cool science! We don’t see that kind of thing ever,” he said. “This is like the ultimate time capsule that’s going to answer a lot of questions.”

Hunter said the plan is to do a lot of the work through a microscope with a small carbide needle, that way they can make sure they don’t miss anything.

“It’s such a special thing,” Hunter said. “A one-shot deal. I doubt we will ever find anything with as much information in a package like this. We want to make sure we do it right.”

James Kirkland, state paleontologist for Utah, said this project is comparable to King Tut’s tomb because of what it could reveal.

However, Kirkland said finding money to pay for the lab work side of the project has been difficult, especially after funding for the Utah Geological Survey decreased.

The Geological Survey is funded by oil and gas leases, but the money coming in dropped significantly when gas prices decreased, Kirkland said. So the family of Utahraptors sits in Hunter’s lab waiting to be fully unearthed.

“It’s been pretty tragic,” he said. “This thing is ripping my guts out.”

Kirkland said that the Museum of Ancient Life paleontology lab was selected to be where work on the fossils would be done because it was the only laboratory in the area that could hold the massive rock.

“Lehi is a perfect place because it will be on display and we can totally outreach to the public about these vicious, smart, amazing dinosaurs,” Kirkland said.

Hunter said he things the fact that you can see this work and these discoveries being made is what sets the museum apart.

He and a group of volunteers have been working on a barosaurus skeleton for the past nine years, which many visitors have seen slowly be uncovered.

“I’ll have people come and I’ll walk out and talk to them,” Hunter said. “They’ll say, ‘Boy, this is taking a long time. This kid right here was only 6 when you started and he wants to know when it’s going to be finished.’”

Hunter also said the depth of knowledge available to visitors is unique.

“If the guest comes and really spends the time to learn, there is a lot of knowledge to be gained,” he said.

Josh Berndt, communications director for Thanksgiving Point, said part of what sets the museum apart is Hunter.

“What he does is such great work and it’s really the heart of what we do,” Berndt said.

Thanksgiving Point seeks to educate its visitors and the Museum of Ancient Life is a good example of that. Hunter is also always willing to give tours, talk to Cub Scout groups and interact with the visitors that watch him in the lab, he said.

“You can actually see what we all think would be a cool job and he’s doing it,” Berndt said.



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