NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ summer haul? 2 tons of dinosaur bones

Paleontologists at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences are hot on the trail of some new and exciting species of long-dead animals. For the past three summers, a team from the museum’s Paleontology and Geology Research Lab has journeyed to a remote and inhospitable area of Utah in search of long-lost dinosaurs. In August, the team returned from a four-week venture with an all-time team record for fossil collection: 4,150 pounds of dinosaur bones!

This trip was a huge success, and not just because of the amount of material that was collected – including one enormous plaster jacket containing several sauropod vertebrae that will be placed on display at the museum this month.

The most important result was the great variety of species discovered in several different dinosaur quarries. Continued excavations, laboratory work, and research on the recovered fossils will lead to a greater understanding of these past ecosystems, giving us a new window into the Cretaceous world. Although we are excited about the sites we have, we are always on the lookout for new discoveries. New sites can be discovered through systematic prospecting or by sheer luck. I discovered a new site unexpectedly one day when returning to camp from a site where I had been excavating bones for several days.

I was walking with my head down, because I just can’t stop looking for the next big (or little) discovery. A few small bits of bone were lying on the surface. I dropped to my knees and looked much closer to determine if it really was anything significant. I removed small bits of sediment so I could discern if any bone existed beneath the eroding surface. To my surprise and delight there was actually more bone in the ground. However, it was small, fragile and already starting to break apart from exposure to the elements. Standard procedure dictated that a careful and detailed examination of the small exposure would have to be done, a process that would take several days.

My sister and my best friend joined the expedition for a few days and helped me in the process of consolidating, recording the GPS location, photo-documenting and exposing the bone. Unfortunately, our time ran out, and the extent of bone showing at the time couldn’t be identified. We brought samples of the bone back to the museum for further preparation, while the bulk of the specimen was left in the ground, safely covered and hidden.

The fossils collected on this expedition will be prepared in public view, inside the glass-walled Paleontology and Geology Research Lab at the museum. You can also see the tools and techniques we use to excavate fossils and learn more about our 2014 field season in “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs” traveling exhibition, opening at the museum on Oct. 11. And that enormous plaster jacket? Be the closest to guessing its weight and win a prize at the museum this fall.