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Boning up at UMD

Dinosaurs draw UMD students to Wyoming

By Pauline Oo

Sara Kubarek and Emily Swor didn't spend the last weeks of this summer attending a free outdoor concert or working a boring summer job. Instead, the UMD seniors went looking for dinosaur bones. Kubarek and Swor got the chance to live out their childhood dreams of being paleontologists through one of UMD's National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU). They took part in the 2004-2007 Wyoming Dinosaur Project, a collaborative effort between UMD, Hope College and Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan, and the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. Below: UMD student Emily Swor excavating a large dinosaur bone at Bighorn Basin in northern Wyoming. Photo by Tim Demko

Students in the program are given a $3,000 stipend to conduct 10 weeks of full-time paleoenvironmental research at the Morrison Formation in the Bighorn Basin of northern Wyoming. Additionally, they are provided with campus housing during the four-day orientation at Hope College, and tents, showers, and meals at the campground near the dig site.

"I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was really little, and I never lost the desire to become a paleontologist," says Swor, who is majoring in geological sciences. "When I found out that I could dig [up] dinosaurs in Wyoming, I jumped at the opportunity."

Since the project typically supports students who have just completed their first or second year in college-Kat Rocheford and Alyson Cartwright were picked this summer-fourth-year students Swor and Kubarek applied for, and landed, grants through the U's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) that allowed them to return to the excavation site.

UROP and the NSF-REU are two ways in which the University of Minnesota helps its undergraduate students gain field experience. Corporate and individual donors, as well as other government agencies and nonprofit organizations, fund many other University-administered undergraduate research scholarships.

"I gained hands-on experience in identifying rocks and soils and the features that delineate different layers and [tell us] about the depositional environment where the dinosaur bones are found," says Rocheford, an anthropology and geological sciences major. "You can look at pictures in textbooks and small samples in the lab, but it is a far cry from seeing them in outcrops several meters high."

Where the dinosaurs once roamed

Wyoming and its neighboring states, such as Utah, have a long tradition of dinosaur fossil discoveries and excavation. The five-year-old UMD-Hope College project site-consisting of a 3-by-20 meter strip along a hill and a 10-by-10 meter quarry--is part of a cluster of dinosaur quarries in Wyoming, some dating back to the 1930s.

"We're actually in a very productive area of the Bighorn Basin," says project coinvestigator Tim Demko, an assistant professor of geological sciences at UMD who has spent the last 10 years working in the Morrison Formation of the Bighorn Basin. "There's a quarry right across the boundary line from us run by a private company; about a mile north of us are a series of big dinosaur quarries that have been excavated by the University of Chicago, Yale, a museum in Switzerland, and the Virginia Museum of Natural History."

Thus far, the research team has found a 2-inch-long tooth belonging to the bipedal, carnivorous Allosaurus and some bones from an unidentified Sauropod (four-legged, plant-eating dinosaur). These bones, from the upper Jurassic period (159-144 million years ago), include two 4-foot-long femurs, a scapula and humerus, two large vertebras, and three large pelvis bones.

"Finding a bone is definitely the best moment," says Swor. "It was very exciting the first year [I was at the site] because I had never touched a dinosaur bone, and to have found one on my own was amazing. The worst part is when something gets broken. It is not uncommon for a bone to get broken because they are so fragile, but when one does break, it is very disappointing."

Getting to the bone

"In the process of excavation, you don't just pull a bone out of the ground," says Tim Demko, UMD geological sciences assistant professor. "You actually have to cover the top of it with a plaster jacket then excavate underneath it, flip the bone over to plaster-jacket the bottom, and then flip it back over. What you have then is a bunch of bones, plus the rock and sediment, wrapped in a cast-like the cast you would get if you had a broken bone. You bring that cast back to [your prep lab] where you cut the jacket off and clean the bone, stabilize it, and glue it back together if its broken."

Demko says a four-foot-long femur bone, for example, takes about a month to prepare and reconstruct.
While large tools are necessary to uncover a fossil from the ground, smaller ones are called for when the fossil is brought back to the lab. Prep work, or cleaning a fossil for exhibition, often involves fine brushes, dental picks, and a variety of small hand-powered tools connected to an air compressor, such as an airscribe (a mini jackhammer) and an airabrader (a mini sandblaster). Once the bones are ready--cleaned and glued together, if broken--they will go to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. The museum will serve as a permanent repository for the fossils, which belong to the U.S. government. (The UMD-Hope College excavation site is federal property managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.)

"When we find a new bone, we give it a number, describe it, and map [its location] as best we could," explains Kubarek. "Then we would work on excavating it, and sometimes we would have to jacket the bone [or cast it in plaster] if it was large or frail to protect it during transport." Kubarek and Cartwright joined Demko on the U of M Stage at the Minnesota State Fair to demonstrate the process of preparing dinosaur bones and to answer questions about their ongoing excavation.

Demko and his excavation team will present their findings at the National Geological Society of America conference in October, and the students may share their own research projects at regional conferences next spring.

"I knew this [project] would be physically as well as mentally challenging, and everyday presented opportunities for me to go beyond what I thought I could do," says Rocheford, who chose to stratigraphically compare the UMD-Hope College site to three other dinosaur quarries in the Bighorn Basin as her individual assignment. "I taught both my daughters that they could do anything they put their minds to, but I thought as a 43-year-old grandmother that there were limits for me. So what I learned is that the only limits I have are the ones I place on myself."

To learn more about the UMD-Hope College collaboration, see 2004-2007 Wyoming Dinosaur Project.

From eNews, September 1, 2005

View other articles from the current issue of UM eNews.

Cheryl Reitan, Publications Director,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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