June 24, 2008
Are Dinosaur Discoveries Just Tip of Iceberg?
As news of a remarkably well-preserved cache of dinosaur bones was being heralded in media outlets around the world, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management paleontologist who had announced the find was taking a breath and urging others to do the same.
No new species were turned up at the 3-month-old site, although a lot of digging is yet to be done. It is within the same Utah/ Colorado border region where at least two previously unheard-of dinosaur species were discovered during the past 10 years. Scientists also do not know whether there are helpful data in the bones or if the find is just a nice stone snapshot of the animals whose lives ended there.
For lay dinosaur enthusiasts, the site is already being described in blogs and e-mails as "a major find," just by virtue of the contents being so legible. Foss and other scientists say they can't help but have their expectations raised by the fossil bones of four long-necked sauropods -- the plant-eating dinosaurs that were likely the largest creatures that ever have or ever will walk the earth.
There are also two carnivorous dinosaurs and possibly a modern- day favorite among dinosaurs -- a stegosaurus. Nearby, there are animal burrows and petrified tree trunks 6 feet in diameter. Some have their bark still attached. They are among the best-preserved specimens ever found.
New dinosaur finds always create a buzz, especially such discoveries as the rotund, sickle-clawed Falcarius utahensis, which gave Utah its name-brand fossil and the movie "Jurassic Park" its most feared villain -- one that relentlessly stalks its human prey through a modern stainless steel kitchen.
The latest find is in the same area that yielded the first allosaur fossils -- the Morrison formation, and that alone all but ensures the 50-by-200-yard site's evolution into full-fledged quarry. The Western Illinois University group that made the discovery is already calling it that.
It's a given to Western Illinois University paleontologist Matthew Bonnan that the site will not only become as famous and integral to putting together ancient history as Dinosaur National Monument. "It's the first time in a long time where we have logjams of bones of different species in one place," he said.
As important as what's there are technological improvements that help ensure it is evaluated correctly, Bonnan said. Science has become much better at spotting formations indicating fossil remains, and technology, as it has virtually every aspect of life, has given scientists a new set of eyes and techniques unheard of even 10 years ago. Instead of looking for what's different, researchers can look deeper, he said.
Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., said big finds are good reminders of why researchers got into the work in the first place. It's both tedious and backbreaking, yet is somehow elegant and even noble, he said. And, unlike most other lab-based or theory-based scientific research, it's literally down to earth and every so often there is a "eureka" moment like this one.
Despite being gone for so long, dinosaurs have maintained a devoted and growing following of human beings worldwide who find a connection and fascination with them, from the magic cartoon liopluerodon now appearing on YouTube to the brachiosaurus found in Africa to the latest real-world evidence that has all but confirmed that dinosaurs survived the eons and are living among us today as birds.
Finding the latest flock in their fossilized but native state is remarkable given that the site has already been picked over by scientists and souvenir hunters. But the site was free of any serious human depredation by virtue of being too far underground. Natural degradation was held in check by geological forces common at the time that sealed the remains in quick-hardening sandstone that formed in prehistoric rivers and dried up.
The excavation was also done in a remarkably short span of time. A week last summer and three weeks digging this spring by a team from the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Ill. The fossilized dinosaurs are from the same late Jurassic period of those at Dinosaur National Monument and the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry near Price.
Although the area is in the Morrison formation, a well-known alluvial plain of sorts for dinosaur remains, the exact location of the site is not being released by the BLM to help ensure its scientific integrity and ward off the general public. Dinosaur enthusiasts have been known to be ingenious snoopers and can become obsessed with a new discovery, not as widespread but also not unlike the mindset that set off the 1849 gold rush to California.
Scientists say what has been found is better than gold and infinitely more valuable than the other dinosaur-based natural resource -- crude oil. The site is closed this week so the BLM can begin an environmental impact assessment of continuing the research and other long-term education-related plans the museum has in mind.
Scientists can't say how the new pieces they found will fit the geologic and life history of the planet. An age whose hallmark was rapid extinction due to sudden catastrophic climate change caused by an errant comet that slammed into the earth my hold clues for modern inhabitants facing a less immediate yet, some say, equally cataclismic climate change.
No one knows for certain what was going on back then, Bonnan said. "Life just kind of turned inside out; dust was global, it was dark night and day, tropical areas became deserts and the cooler spots on the planet were kicked into an ice age.
With another accident with a comet a far less likely occurrence than environmental catastrophy by humans doing, there is time, he said, noting that perhaps the new site will provide data that lifts the prehistory curtain a little and perhaps help the current dominant land-based creatures avoid a similar fate.