FRONTIER TO THE PAST
For decades, researchers have looked at maps and aerial photographs and wondered what lay in store for them in the remote outcrops of the northern Kaiparowits Plateau. However, until now, the region’s distance from open or accessible routes had thwarted almost all research efforts. In August 2010, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was finally able to send the first crew ever into one of the most tantalizing and isolated basins.
With no road access, helicopter support was critical to the success of the mission. Planned and organized by Monument Paleontologist Alan Titus, the operation was a collaborative effort between the Monument and the Utah Museum of Natural History. Over fifteen hundred pounds of supplies and gear were flown in, followed by five of the six members of the survey crew. The sixth member, seasonal BLM employee Scott Richardson, hiked in due to his uneasiness with flying. He was able to do so in about five hours because the helicopter had flown in his gear.
On Monday, the first day of the project, you could sense the excitement in each of the survey crew members as they waited for their turn to fly in. It may be only once or twice in a lifetime that a researcher gets a chance to be the very first one to explore an untouched area. The area is so wild that in five days of inventory the only sign of previous human presence was a handful of 50 to 60 year-old cowboy camps and occasional scatters of stone flakes, probably dating to the early archaic period (4,000-8,000 years ago).
After setting up camp, the crews immediately headed out to the north and northwest into the most inviting badlands around camp. To everyone’s surprise, the results were not stellar. A handful of isolated bones, a couple of non-salvageable turtles, and lots of microvertebrate material were all that anyone had to show for a half-day’s worth of hiking the parched outcrops. Tuesday the crew fared little better, with similar results as the previous day.
At dinner that night, morale was running pretty low. They decided that the geology to the north might not be optimum for fossil preservation. This caused a change in plans. The crews decided instead to target the more subtle outcrops to the south and west. A grim thought hung in everyone’s minds as they settled in for the night. What if there really wasn’t much in the basin?
By 8:15 Wednesday morning, the crews were back out in the field. By 9:00, Alan Titus had found his first significant site, a crested hadrosaur skeleton exhibiting large sections with the bones still articulated or joined together. Sixty feet away at the same level was another skeleton, this time of a horned dinosaur. Less than an eighth of a mile away, they found a spectacular plant fossil site that yielded several different kinds of plants including palm fronds, araucarian conifers, and sycamores.
Eric Lund of the Utah Museum of Natural History was having similar results. He found a relatively complete horned dinosaur skull. While it is too early to tell, Eric’s skull is probably a new specimen of the recently named species Utahceratops gettyi. As a fitting end to an important day, Alan Titus found a nearly complete specimen of a new kind of crocodile sticking out of a small badland spur. Dozens of armor plates and a partial skull were right at the surface! The crew celebrated in camp that night as the effort was now starting to pay off.
Thursday Titus spent the entire day mapping and collecting the crocodile and so was unable to look for new sites. However, Scott Richardson had his turn and found a nearly complete skull of centrosaur ceratopsid, followed later by the discovery of a nearly complete, articulated hadrosaur skeleton. In camp that night, Scott exclaimed, “That hadrosaur is the coolest site I’ve ever found!”
Friday the crew was scheduled to fly out at two o’clock. There was still a lot to do at the crocodile site, so Titus spent the day there. As they collected the last bones of the croc off the surface, they spotted three more vertebrae in place. Eric and Scott dug drainage ditches around their finds after capping each with a protective layer of plaster to ward of the effects of the coming winter. The flight back to headquarters went without incident and an elated crew began to reflect. The basin they inventoried appears to be one of the most productive ever found in the Monument. Planning has already begun for the collection and additional inventory of the area in 2011.