Day of the Dinos

One of the best parts about my position in the Grand Staircase these past five months has been the variety.  Though my partner and I are mainly tasked with collecting native seed species for the BLM’s S.O.S. program, our boss is a wildlife biologist for the monument and one of the most skilled naturalists I have ever met.  Terry has lived on the monument for almost 20 years and thus has answered almost every question we’ve asked about the area’s species, geology, human history, and more. Because of Terry’s job as a biologist and his connections with many ongoing research projects on the monument, we’ve been able to garner a great variety of skills and experiences during this field season.


A few of the small dinosaur fossils we found!

One of the coolest moments of the summer was when our team was invited to assist a group of respected paleontologists on one of their digs.  Our two million acre monument has an incredible wealth of geological features and some of the best-preserved Cretaceous Period fossils in the world.  When we met “Dr. Dino” (as our boss calls him) we were instructed not to repeat too many details as their research is not yet published.  However, I can say that the site was very diverse.  They found fossils belonging to Tyrannosaurs, Velociraptors, Hadrosaurs, turtles, and more.

Turtle fossil dressed to impress in plaster



First, they showed us some fossils that had already been covered in a protective coat of burlap and plaster. This is done to protect the exposed and excavated materials until they are removed from the site and safely transferred to a lab or a museum.

Next, we were told how to tell the difference between an actual fossil and a rock (they look very similar!)- something that comes in handy when you are digging and find a shard or disarticulated bone.  This method is very advanced- not!  You pick up the potential fossil, and lick it.  That’s it.  Truly.  If it is really a fossil, it will “stick more” to your tongue.  The only way to get the feel for this is to have fossil in one hand, a rock in the other hand, and lick them both back and forth.  Once you accept the fact that you’re now the sort of person who puts your tongue on 70 million year old minerals, it’s actually pretty fun!


Shoveling material out of the pit

Then, we got digging!  And oh man, did we dig.  In the hot 100+ degree weather, about 10 of us removed shovel after shovel of rock and earth from a large pit for almost 3 hours.  It took a lot of time and manpower to get to the fossil layer; much of a paleontologist’s time is spent removing massive amounts of sediment.  While digging, I found what I thought was a bone.  So I (you guessed it) licked it to confirm my hunch.  And it was! The fossil experts in the group suspected it belonged to a turtle.  Once we found bone, the tiny brushes and dustpans were brought out.  We meticulously brushed, sifted, sorted, and repeated.




Around the same time I found the turtle shard, someone else in our group also found a fossil. Except this time, it belonged to a TYRANNOSAURUS REX! I know, I know, they get all the love. When I discussed my turtle find, I didn’t capitalize every letter. Tyrannosaurs are the superstars of the fossil world though, and in matter of seconds my childhood dreams were fulfilled. 10 year old me would have been ecstatic, and let’s be honest, 24 year old me was freaking out.


At the end of the day, we thanked the paleontologists profusely for letting us assist, and they in turn thanked us for shoveling for hours on end! We felt incredibly privileged to be included on this dig, and it was great to know we were able to help them excavate the site a little faster. All in all, it was an amazing day and an experience I will never forget. The summer has been full of surprises, but this one was up there with the best of them!



This is an astoundingly well-preserved ligament/tendon of some kind. Can you see the defined texture? Let us all give mother nature a round of applause for this one!

Note: This seems obvious, but we did not keep any of the bones we found that day. Collecting and keeping materials without a permit is illegal on public lands. It also demonstrates a selfish disregard for both the land’s integrity, as well as all generations: past, present, and future.

Lauryl McFarland

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument



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