Bureau of Land Management
Volunteer Feature

Volunteers to the Rescue

Dinosaur Bones Get New Life Thanks to Volunteers

Backbone of the Project: Volunteers of all ages take a break on a sunny Sunday at the Peterson site
Volunteers have played and continue to play a vital role in the dinosaur bone excavations that have been ongoing at the Peterson Site in New Mexico for more than a dozen years. This site in central New Mexico is an extensive and unusually productive Jurassic bonebed containing numerous scattered dinosaur bones as well as articulated (joined together) specimens of dinosaurs. It is located about 30 miles west of Albuquerque on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

The site is dominated by pinyon and juniper trees interspersed with grass and sagebrush But when Jurassic dinosaurs roamed this land, about 165 million years ago, these lands were much different. Instead of the steep canyon walls and rocky cliffs, the area was relatively flat with intermittent streams and rivers and lush vegetation covering the adjoining meadows and parklands.

The Peterson site was discovered in the 1960s by Rodney Peterson while he was prospecting for uranium.
This leg bone has been exposed and is awaiting a plaster of Paris and burlap wrap.
(Dinosaur bones contain uranium.) Since 1989, about 20 volunteers have spent more than 5,200 hours documenting and excavating more than 100 bones from the quarry. These “Friends of Paleontology” are trained by the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, but they also sign on as volunteers for the BLM, the land managing agency. Mike O'Neill, BLM paleontologist in charge of the project, says that without volunteers, “we would not be able to conduct these kinds of excavations and many sites would not get the attention they deserve, but would erode away and disappear.” In fact, most large scale excavations of dinosaur fossil bones on public lands involve extensive volunteer labor.
The Peterson Site is located within Boney Canyon, pictured above.

At the Peterson Site, volunteers outnumber professionals by more than ten to one. Over the past decade, these dedicated people have been involved in every stage of this excavation, from mapping the site to hauling out thousand pound blocks of bone laden rock. As a result, some exciting new discoveries have been made, such as several bones of a large tyrannosaur, an Allosaurus, and a partial skull of a sauropod dinosaur similar to Diplodocus. The sauropod skull is one of less than a dozen known and is especially important because it could represent a genus and/or species from which skull material is not yet known.

Work is expected to continue for a long time, possibly 10 or 15 years. And until the last bone is discovered, volunteers can be counted on to be there.

Additional Photos from the Peterson Site

Click on the small image to enlarge.

Flood flows have cut a sandstone ledge and cut into the mudstone beneath, to expose a limb bone at the base of the waterfall. (See arrow)
The volunteer in the foreground is excavating an unidentified bone. He works carefully around the bone to separate it from the surrounding terrain just enough to determine the extent and outline of the piece.
Rod Peterson points to the exposed bone while his cousin uses his body to measure its length.
The fossil bone now has been “jacketed” in plaster.
Jacketed bones are heavy. Ron Peterson and Dan D’Andrea secure the bone to a “sled” rigged from an old car hood. “Paleo work” requires creativity, perseverance and muscle.
For more information on the Peterson Site, contact BLM-New Mexico paleontologist
Mike O'Neill
A plywood ramp is built in order to slide the bone out of the arroyo.
More views of volunteers in action.
The site is carefully mapped and every bone tediously recorded.
Site Map

Visit "Albert's Excellent Adventure" describing the excavation of Albert the tyrannosaur at BLM New Mexico's Web site.

To view other BLM Volunteer Features, click here

Last Updated: March 26, 2001

For questions about our programs contact Elizabeth Rieben
This site is maintained by Kevin Flynn

Bureau of Land Management
Environmental Education and Volunteer Programs