Digging Eastern Utah’s Dinosaur Logjam

Dinosaurs are supposed to be remote. Documentaries and paleontological memoirs revel in the quest to dig them out of the badlands – the further into the desert the fossils are, the more romantic the tale.

But that’s not the story of the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry. This is a dinosaur graveyard anyone can get to.

I’ve only been out at the Late Jurassic quarry for a day now. I expect the rest of the week to start like today, with a jarring dawn chorus of squawking avian dinosaurs around 6AM, shortly followed by the camp’s groundskeeper walking by my tent to water the lawns behind the nearby steakhouse. Add warm showers across the parking lot, and this is the height of luxury for fieldwork.

The quarry itself is a half hour drive away. The first ten minutes are on Hanksville, Utah’s main drag, past dinosaurs made out of car parts and a dilapidated rock shop to a quick turn onto the unmarked Cow Dung Road. That’s when the drive gets interesting. The dirt track weaves and dips through the purple, gray, tan, and maroon rocks of the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation. The hills and gulleys are so otherwordly that the Mars Desert Research Station thought it was the perfect place to simulate the red planet.

A junkyard dinosaur on Hanksville's main drag. Photo by Brian Switek.
A junkyard dinosaur on Hanksville’s main drag. Photo by Brian Switek.

I’ve yet to stop along the way to reenact Barsoom tales. I’m always too excited to get to the dinosaurs scattered by the dozens through the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry. Locals knew about the site over a century ago, and paleontologists poked around during the mid-20th century, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the Rockford, Illinois’ Burpee Museum of Natural History started to dig in and realize how rich the site really is. Their team has uncovered scores of bones over the past seven years, most of which belong to juveniles of the sauropod dinosaurs Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Apatosaurus.

Sauropods are only part of the story, though. Early on, the Burpee crew excavated what seems to be a Ceratosaurus – a carnivorous dinosaur with three horns – and just last year they retrieved an Allosaurus braincase. Armored dinosaurs wound up in the 150 million year old jumble, too. In addition to a possible Stegosaurus, the crew has also just started to uncover a rare Late Jurassic ankylosaur.

What assembled all these dinosaurs? No one yet knows. The Hanksville-Burpee Quarry is still in the early days of excavation. How the bonebed formed, and why it holds an unusual mix of dinosaurs, has yet to be determined by expedition leader Scott Williams and his crew. But the project is making plans to find out. Stony Brook University sauropod expert Mike D’Emic joined the team this year and started cutting bone sections to take back to the lab and investigate how the young sauropods were growing. In time, the biology and ecology of this special place will come into focus.

But I’m here to dig. For the next week I’ll be picking and brushing at the bonebed to carefully reveal as many new dinosaur bones as I can. (I hope I can do better than last year.) You can follow my finds each day on Twitter and Instagram with the #HBQ2014 tag, I’ll write a wrap-up when I get home, and, if you like, you can come out and see the site for yourself.

For the rest of the week, until Saturday, the quarry will host daily public tours at 11AM, 1PM, and 3PM. A sign at the Cow Dung Road turnoff will point the way. I hope those of you nearby can come and take a look. The Bureau of Land Management and Burpee Museum of Natural History are working hard to preserve and understand this site for the benefit of everyone, scientists and the public alike, befitting a fantastic quarry that forms a part of our planet’s awesome backstory.

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