SciTech

Inside NC Science: Hunting – and finding – prehistoric fossils in Utah

Lindsay Zanno is head of the Paleontology Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and an assistant research professor of biological sciences at N.C. State.
Lindsay Zanno is head of the Paleontology Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and an assistant research professor of biological sciences at N.C. State. N.C. State News Services

It’s late in the afternoon and I’m hunched under an enormous, flat sandstone boulder, soaking wet, shivering and quite frankly exhausted. This particular boulder balances precariously atop a weak, mudstone pedestal as if it were a day-old pancake on a stick of butter.

Beside me, three other members of my field team are shoving themselves up against the rock, trying desperately to keep their appendages out of the deluge and the spontaneous streams now encircling us. This may be a dangerous place to hunker down, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that standing out in the desert with a backpack of metal tools during a lightning storm ranks as more of a gamble.

The rain came hard and often this year, sometimes in the form of hailstones the size of grapes, once forming a 30-foot waterfall off the cliff above – but always instantaneous, as if it would be a crime for the sky to tip us off beforehand.

This was our fourth season hunting for dinosaurs in southern Utah since I joined the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences as head of the new Paleontology Research Lab. And as usual, Mother Nature was sure to remind us that out here our very lives are subject to her every whim. It’s not a lesson any of us asked for, but in our new downward gazing, screen-centric society, where what happens in nature is often little more than a distraction, it’s one we all desperately need. Even those intrepid neophytes who join us on our expeditions seem to grasp the contrast almost immediately. … It isn’t what we don’t have – communication with the outside world, electricity, running water, even shelter – it’s what we do have: fierce camaraderie, a chance to achieve the seemingly impossible, the thrill of discovery and the reward of resilience.

Each spring and summer my team of staff, students and volunteers brave the intense desert conditions in the search for undiscovered dinosaurs. These discoveries are more important to our future than the dusty skeletons in the museum’s exhibit halls would suggest. Uncovering an ancient ecosystem that thrived 98 million years ago here in North America will teach us how life reacted in the face of global warming, rising seas and mass, climate-induced extinctions – all conditions Earth was experiencing during the reign of dinosaurs and that humans face today.

At the close of this year’s field season, we loaded 2,500 pounds of fossils into trucks for transport back to the museum. Cradled in white plaster jackets were the skeletons of two new species of dinosaur unknown to science and the public alike, and the tantalizing remains of crocodiles, turtles, fish and ancient amphibians. We humans accompanying them on this journey had suffered lacerations and sunburns, been pelted with hailstorms, tumbled down scrub-brush mountainsides, and scaled 1,200-foot cliffs ... all in the name of doing science for society.

And, perhaps most unbelievably, we just can’t wait to do it all again next year.

Lindsay Zanno is head of the Paleontology Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and an assistant research professor of biological sciences at N.C. State.

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