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Education & Outreach

Paleontologist for a day

Sidebar: Dinosaur dude ranches

In 1993, veterinarian and longtime amateur fossil collector Burkhard Pohl and a paleontologist friend found dinosaur fossils at an operating cattle ranch outside of Thermopolis, Wyo. After surveying the site, they quickly decided that there were likely more fossils on the land than a paleontologist could recover in a lifetime. So they created and opened the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in 1995, with a museum and pay-to-dig program. It is now one of many “dinosaur dude ranches” that exist throughout the Rocky Mountain West, says Brent Breithaupt, a paleontologist and director of the University of Wyoming Geological Museum in Laramie.

Visitors to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center have unearthed well-preserved remnants of Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, Apatosaurus and Allosaurus fossils at the site, as well as clues to the paleoenvironment of the Late Jurassic. Courtesy of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

Single-day digs are great for families who have little or no experience with paleontology, Breithaupt says. On these mini-adventures, people spend a few hours “getting a good feeling for what it takes to dig up a dinosaur.” They learn that dinosaur digs are grueling and taxing, yet rewarding.

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center, which is located about two hours from Yellowstone National Park, offers single-day digs at 60 different dig sites on 500 acres of a 15,000-acre ranch. Diggers start at 8:00 a.m. with a crash course on the geology and paleontology of the area, as well as an explanation of the excavation procedures from so-called paleotechnicians (who are mostly undergraduate or graduate students). A van then carries the diggers and their guides out to dig in what Breithaupt calls “the real Jurassic Park” — the Morrison Formation, which is a sandstone, siltstone and red sandy shale formation that holds a treasure trove of dinosaur bones from the Late Jurassic. The visitors will then dig for the next six hours, stopping only for lunch and discussion about their surroundings and discoveries, big or small.

“There are many, many very important fossils still to be found,” Breithaupt says. “And any time you get someone out in the field, something big could be found.” It is entirely within the realm of possibility that a person digging on a day-dig program could unearth part of a complete skeleton, a new species or genus of dinosaur, or missing parts of a dinosaur, he says.

Indeed, over the last 10 years, approximately 6,000 visitors have participated in the digs and have found well-preserved remnants of Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, Apatosaurus and Allosaurus (the only meat-eater) fossils, as well as clues to the Jurassic environment, says David Gray, director of the Big Horn Basin Foundation, which is a nonprofit that coordinates education and research at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center’s dig sites. A geologist who is now in charge of curating the bones that are found, Gray says that he has wanted “to play with dinosaurs” since he was eight years old.

Most of the diggers are families traveling the West or to visit Yellowstone who build in a day of dinosaur digging for the kids, Pohl says, but the center also accommodates school groups and has held special student group sessions on excavation practices. The center does not impose a minimum age limit for diggers, but Pohl suggests that parents consider how mature their kids are and what they can handle before enrolling them in such an intense program.

The Dig for a Day program can be a “very good vehicle” for individuals and families to learn about paleontology and geology, Gray says. Working one-on-one with a paleotechnician and digging for dinosaur bones with their own hands is a unique activity. But the program is mutually beneficial, Gray adds, as the museum gains from the work the diggers do to uncover bones as much as the diggers benefit from the experience.

Anything diggers find at the dig site becomes the property of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center and will be used for research and to reconstruct specimens in the museum, Pohl says. But if participants uncover a major discovery, they get their names cited in scientific papers, Gray adds. That has happened a couple of times over the years, he says, “and it’s very exciting” for all involved.

Less than 100 miles northeast, Dinosaur Safaris offers a similar digging experience on 40 acres on the Morrison Formation. Oil geologist Bob Simon began offering dinosaur digs in 2000 to people ages 10 and up. He says that visitors number 50 to 60 per season, and are of all ages. At Dinosaur Safaris, diggers can do single-day or multiple-day digs in July and August, and get to go home with a remnant of their dig. As part of the dig price, people get to keep what they unearth unless it is very valuable or of scientific importance, Simon says. Teachers receive a special discount, Simon says, because “what better way [is there] to garner interest in the earth sciences than for students to be able to hold a real dinosaur bone?”

Martin Eigenberger, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkfield, participated in a dig with Dinosaur Safaris a few years ago and says that he had a great experience. The dig captures “that certain kind of excitement that only comes with a live, real-time, three-dimensional experience,” he says.

Megan Sever

Dinosaur dude ranches

Dinosaur dig possibilities abound across the West, with most located in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, says Brent Breithaupt, director of the University of Wyoming Geological Museum in Laramie. The adventures range from single-day digs to three- or five-day digs, to week-long expedition digs including camping and whitewater rafting.

The experience varies among the programs, as does what visitors take away from their vacation (see main story). Some programs allow diggers to keep what they have found, others allow them to purchase remnants, and other programs require that everything that is found go to museums.

The one thing that most of the programs stress is that this vacation is a working vacation and participants should be prepared for demanding (and rewarding) scientific work. Most of the longer digs and some of the shorter ones have minimum age restrictions, and all require participants to be in good physical condition. As any geologist who has been in the field knows, conditions can be grueling, and every one of these adventures takes place in the dead heat of summer. Wherever you decide to dig, call first because programs can fill up in the summer.

Another factor that participants need to pay close attention to when choosing a dig program is just who is leading the dig, says Jamie Cornish with the Museum of the Rockies at the University of Montana in Bozeman. There is a big problem with illegal collection and sale of dinosaur fossils, and people need to make sure they’re working with a reputable organization that follows the paleontological code of ethics, she says (see Geotimes, October 2000). After all, “you don’t want to be contributing to illegal sale and profiteering” or the destruction of irreplaceable relics of the past, Cornish says.

When the public gets involved in digging for fossils, paleontologists often worry about keeping intact the integrity of the fossil record, Breithaupt says. They wouldn’t want to see unique vertebrate bones being taken home without a professional assessment of the fossil’s significance or value.

Nonetheless, both Breithaupt and Cornish say that pay-to-dig programs can be very positive experiences and are much more preferable than people going out digging on their own. “I think these programs are valuable and can be a very positive experience,” Breithaupt says. Part of the thrill for families is touching a real dinosaur bone, he says, but part of the thrill is also their personal contribution to the science.

Resources for planning your own dinosaur dig:

Wyoming Dinosaur Center
Thermopolis, Wyo.
307-864-2997 or 800-455-DINO

Dinosaur Safaris, Inc.
Shell, Wyo.
The Museum of Western Colorado
Grand Junction, Colo. or
Dinosaur Field Station at Fort Peck
Fort Peck, Mont.
Makoshika Dinosaur Museum
Glendive, Mont.

Old Trail Museum
Choteau, Mont.

Museum of the Rockies
Bozeman, Mont.

Judith River Dinosaur Institute
Malta, Mont.
Paleoworld Montana Dinosaur Dig
Hell Creek, Mont.


"The trouble with fossil thieves," Geotimes, October 2000

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