Photo of Dr. Alan Titus, Monument Paleontologist, pointing out key features at a hadrosaur dinosaur excavation, Kaiparowits Plateau, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (BLM)
Dr. Alan Titus, Monument Paleontologist, pointing out key features at a hadrosaur 
dinosaur excavation, Kaiparowits Plateau, Grand Staircase-Escalante National 
Monument.  (BLM)

Managing a Modern Day Fossil Bone Rush

By Alan L. Titus

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) was established by Presidential proclamation in September 1996.  The proclamation made specific reference to “world class” fossil resources of the Late Cretaceous age (100 million years to 65 million years ago) in the Kaiparowits Plateau region.  This “world class” label was based, at that time, primarily on the tiny fossil bones and teeth of mammals, fish, lizards, turtles, and frogs recovered by researchers in the 1980s and early 1990s.  By 1996, the Kaiparowits Plateau had yielded only two largely incomplete dinosaur skulls and very little else in the way of diagnostic larger fossils.  There had been no discoveries that compared to other Late Cretaceous dinosaur finds in Canada, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Texas.

In May 2000, I was hired to manage GSENM’s paleontology program.  The basic challenges we faced included obtaining inventory data to define the spatial distribution of high-value resources, educating management and interest groups about the resources, and protecting the resources.  My first priority was forming partnerships with institutions having a longstanding intrinsic interest in the monument’s resources.  The Utah Museum of Natural History, the Utah Geological Survey, and the Museum of Northern Arizona all became close collaborators in both resource management and research.  Combined crews of BLM employees and partners were in the field by early 2001.

Thousands of dinosaur fossil sites have been documented since then, including dozens with soft tissue impressions and numerous new species, proving that the proclamation’s claim of “world class” sites was more than justified.  The ever growing list of discoveries includes five new kinds of horned dinosaurs, including two that made it into TIME magazine in 2010, a new armored dinosaur, two new kinds of bone-headed dinosaurs, two new animals similar to Tyrannosaurus rex, four new kinds of raptor dinosaurs, and possibly six new kinds of hadrosaurs.  The first Utah remains of the giant alligator Deinosuchus (dye-noh-sue-kus) and dozens of turtle, fish, crocodile, mammal, lizard, snake, bird, and flying reptile (pterosaur) species were also found.  One of the horned dinosaurs, Kosmoceratops (kos-mo-ser-uh-tops), currently holds the record as the most ornate-headed dinosaur ever found.  Other new species, like Hagryphus giganteus (hag-riff-us jy-gant-tee-us), Gryposaurus monumentensis (grip-oh-sore-us mahn-you-men-ten-sis), and Utahceratops gettyi (U-tah-ser-uh-tops get-ee-eye), are heavyweights in their class, suggesting that southern dinosaur faunas actually had larger species than their northern counterparts.  The significance of the finds made between 2000 and 2010 transformed GSENM’s basic fossil resource inventory and management project into an integrated, multidisciplinary research program that is spurring a renaissance in North American Late Cretaceous paleontology.

The quality and scientific significance of the Kaiparowits fossil resources alone are primarily driving this remarkable modern “bone rush.”  However, without the BLM’s active support, particularly in having a field-level paleontologist, the treasures of the Kaiparowits could still be languishing in obscurity.  With over a dozen institutions engaged in long-term research projects in the Kaiparowits Plateau region, it is truly exciting to think of what this paleontological frontier will show us in the coming decades.

Dr. Alan Titus has served as the paleontologist for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument since 2000.  Prior to that he worked for the Department of Energy's Nuclear Weapons Testing Program and lectured at Washington State University, Snow College (Utah), and the College of Southern Idaho.