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Golden Spikes and Golden Opportunities

Paleontology emerged in the American West even before the Civil War. President Thomas Jefferson instructed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to include fossils in the collections they made during their great exploration of 1804-1806. Later explorations and surveys, made as part of efforts to find a railroad route and locate mineral deposits, also noted the presence of fossils. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, it did more than just help people get from here to there faster. The coming of the railroad produced one of the most productive and exciting periods in the history of American science, a period that captured the public's imagination and produced some of the most colorful figures any branch of science could claim. It ignited a paleontological explosion, a great "bone rush" to the West, that filled America's new museums with awe-inspiring creatures whose hold on our imaginations has never waned.

Crew recovering Diplodocus skeleton at Garden Park Quarry in Colorado, around 1915Crew recovering Diplodocus at a Garden Park Quarry, ca. 1915-16. This specimen is now at the Denver Museum of Natural History.

Denver Museum of Natural History, Photo Archives

In 1870, Professor O.C. Marsh of Yale, America's first professional vertebrate paleontologist to work in the West, led the first of many expeditions into the western territories. On Marsh's first trip out, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody served as a guide, and the two soon became friends. Like Cody, Marsh was an avid outdoorsman, a skilled hunter, and a keen shot. Because the 1870s were a period of intense conflict between American Indians and Euro-American settlers and miners, Marsh's expedition traveled with a military escort, one of the benefits of his connections with Civil War generals William T. Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan, and others. In addition to the army escorts, he was able to use army wagons, supplies, and other equipment. Many of the soldiers and their Indian scouts brought him fossils they found. The Pawnee Indians even dubbed Marsh the "Bone Medicine-Man."

Into this scene strode Marsh's most bitter rival and antagonist, Professor Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. One of the leading scientists of his day, Cope eventually was the author of some 1,400 books, papers, and monographs. Soon, the competition began--the race to find more, bigger, and the most spectacular dinosaurs. A contributing cause for the feud was a misconstruction by Cope of a marine reptile named Elasmosaurus in 1868. Upon viewing the specimen, Marsh embarrassed Cope by pointing out that he had placed the head of the animal on the end of its tail. After that, there was no going back.

Cast of most complete Allosaurus ever found on display at University of Wyoming's Geological Museum

Fossils from public lands are displayed for public enjoyment the world over. The cast of the most complete Allosaurus ever found is on display at the Geological Museum of the University of Wyoming.

Geological Museum, University of Wyoming

The Bone Wars were waged in places like Como Bluff in Wyoming and Garden Park in Colorado. The bloodless war took a variety of forms. One side would bribe the other's field workers for information on discoveries and locations, or send collectors to work localities claimed by the other. Telegraph messages were intercepted. Today, they might have read each other's e-mail! In the end, the war broke both men financially, but science and the American public gained much from their rivalry. Twenty-eight new genera of dinosaurs were discovered and new collecting techniques were developed. Workers developed a technique of wrapping fossils in plaster and burlap, a technique still used by vertebrate paleontologists to protect brittle fossils. Cope's collections became a strong component of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, while Marsh's collections went on to the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, and to the Smithsonian Institution.

Since the dinosaur hunting days of Cope and Marsh, the practice of paleontology has undergone a revolution. A century ago, paleontologists were concerned with finding the biggest, or the most complete, specimens they could in order to fill the nation's new museum halls with awe-inspiring public displays of mounted skeletons. Prevailing interpretations of dinosaurs, for instance, portrayed them as huge, tail-dragging, cold-blooded, dim-witted, plodding creatures that lived in a hot, humid world viewed as little more than one big swamp. Today, a visit to most natural history museums reveals a vastly different picture. We see active creatures populating a variety of habitats, from lush to arid. Discovery and analysis of dinosaur trackways and nesting sites have led many paleontologists to believe that some of these creatures cared for their young. Other discoveries, such as the dinosaur Deinonychus, reveal creatures that were swift and intelligent predators that may have hunted their prey cooperatively in packs, similar to the wolves of today. Other studies suggest that many of the dinosaurs may have been able to regulate their body temperatures.

For today's scientists, the goal is not simply to identify the life-forms preserved in the sedimentary rocks of the Earth's crust, but also to provide answers to questions about how these organisms lived and died, what their environments were like, how they grew and evolved, and how they related to other forms of life. Experts in many technical fields are often consulted about fossil finds; many of these scientists are also specialists.

A hundred years ago, paleontologists faced the challenge of hauling tons of fossil specimens by wagon over nearly impassable terrain. Today, paleontologists borrow freely from the technological advances in other fields, such as this Army helicopter.

Jerry Van Wyngarten, Research Center and Special Library, Museum of Western Colorado

An Army helicopter is used to transport fossil specimens.

When working with fossil plants, animals, and related organisms, paleontologists try to form a picture of how a life-form once fit into its environment. Such scientific specialties as paleobiology, paleobotany, paleoecology, paleoenvironmental reconstruction, evolutionary biology, and sedimentology are used to study fossils in the context of their environmental surroundings. For example, scientists can compare the pollen and spores found with the bones of dinosaurs to those produced by modern plants and reconstruct what the environment was like when these animals walked the Earth.

Paleontologists also look at the organism as a whole. This can involve studies of anatomy, comparative morphology (bone shapes), biometrics, and pathology (sickness and injury). It may include the study of related fossils such as fossil dung (coprolites) and stomach or gizzard stones (gastroliths). Looking closer and even microscopically at fossil organisms includes the study of microbiology, and may include development of cells and tissues (histology), biochemistry, biophysics, and DNA studies. A lot of these microbiology studies have been popularized recently through the release of books and movies like Jurassic Park and The Lost World.

Fossils are important in reconstructing the geologic history of places, from individual rock layers to entire continents. Fossils can be used to correlate rocks from one area to another, to correlate strata with absolute chronological dates, and to provide relative age dating. On a larger scale, fossils are useful for determining the geography of ancient land and marine deposits, and tracing the transformation of the Earth's land and water forms, including continental drift.

Paleontologists have found remains of dinosaurs from Cretaceous period along Alaska's Colville River.
Since the mid-1980's, paleontologists have been making exciting discoveries along Alaska's Colville River. These Cretaceous finds have extended the known range of dinosaur habitats and have produced new theories about dinosaur migration and adaptation to harsh climates.

Bob King, BLM

In the field of biology, paleontologists often try to explain the behavior of animals and are interested in how organisms reproduced. Did vertebrate animals give live birth, or were they hatched from eggs? What did they eat or consume? What were the "demographics" or population dynamics or migration routes of various fossil organisms when they were alive? Sometimes looking at scars and scar tissues on bones, and endocranial casts (brain and central nervous system) of animals will indicate modes of behavior and result in hypotheses about possible interactions with the environment and other living creatures. The study of ichnofossils, or tracks and trace fossils, is important in determining various interactive behaviors.

Matrix surrounding a fossil being carefully removed prior to studyFossils must be prepared before they can be properly studied. This view shows matrix being removed.

Al Ligrani, Research Center and Special Library, Museum of Western Colorado

The study of paleontology has and continues to be one of the greatest detective mysteries, the classic investigation of who, what, where, when, why, and how. While the American frontier of Cope and Marsh has long since disappeared, the field of paleontology is still on the edge of discovery. New fossil discoveries continue to expand our understanding of the relationships of organisms, their adaptations and possible lineages over time, and other aspects of the history of our planet.

PALEONTOLOGY: The Study of Ancient Life Frozen in Time

Derived from the Greek word meaning "ancient individuals," paleontology is the study of fossils, the remains or traces of any ancient organism preserved in the Earth's crust, or, possibly, on another planet. Organisms become fossils in many ways--a fish sinks to the bottom of a lake and is buried in soft mud, animals grazing on the plains are buried by the sudden eruption of volcanic ash, shell debris accumulates slowly on the ocean floor.

Remains of Northarctus, one of the most complete lemur-like primate specimens from North AmericaNotharctus, one of the most complete lemur-like primate specimens known from North America. This Eocene forest-dwelling mammal was found in Wyoming.

Dennis Finnin, AMNH

Fossilization is a rather chancy business. Fossil formation is affected by the rate of burial of the organic remains. Also, organisms have a better chance of being preserved if they have hard parts, such as bones, shells, teeth, or wood. Such hard parts are less likely to be disturbed or eaten by other organisms. The petrification of remains or the mold-and-cast process are two ways in which these hard parts of organisms eventually produce fossils.

Remains of organisms become petrified when groundwater containing dissolved minerals seeps into the tiny natural openings of buried bones or other porous parts of dead organisms. As the water slowly passes through the organism, the minerals crystallize and settle out, filling the pores. Petrified remains are hard and rocklike because some or all of the original materials have been replaced by new, harder minerals. In the mold-and-cast process, the sediments around an object are compacted and cemented until they become rock. A mold results from simple solution of the original object in groundwater. Later, other sediments may fill the mold, harden into rock, and produce a cast of the original object.

FOSSILS: A National Treasure

Many fossils can be found on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal agencies. These fossils are a national treasure jointly owned by all Americans. Many of the vertebrate fossils in America's public museums came from these lands. One recent example of a rare fossil found on public lands is the skull of Parasaurolophus, found in the De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in New Mexico. This is one of only about a half-dozen known specimens of this dinosaur.

Parasaurolophus was a type of duckbilled dinosaur that lived about 75 million years ago when New Mexico was a lush, tropical area. The dinosaur was about 9 m long and weighed two to three metric tons-- the size of a small elephant. This skull has recently been CAT-scanned and it's so well preserved that paleontologists can now learn much more about the sounds these dinosaurs may have made with their crests.

Paleontologists must work very carefully to avoid damaging fossils.

Keith Rigby, Jr., BLM

Students and teachers may collect some kinds of fossils on BLM public lands. Sedimentary rocks produced in oceans, lakes, rivers, caves, and floodplains of rivers are often good places to look for fossils. The shells and other hard parts of animals that live in these places accumulate over a period of several years and then are buried by sediments. Fossils that may be collected include reasonable amounts of invertebrate fossils, such as trilobites, brachiopods, and gastropods, as well as fossil plants; and limited quantities of petrified wood.

Because of their relative rarity, scientific importance, and fragility, vertebrate fossils may not be collected except under permit by qualified individuals. However, many museums and colleges do offer opportunities for volunteers to study and work alongside trained professional paleontologists. These rules of collection apply specifically to BLM public lands. When planning a field trip to an area, teachers should always check with the public or private landowner to determine whether or not fossil collecting is permitted, and if so, what types of collection are permissible.

Paleontologists at work in the field
Paleontological field work can be both arduous and exciting. Painstaking care must be exercised to prevent damage to fragile bones as they are removed from the ground.

Keith Rigby, Jr., BLM

Fossils of all kinds are the only direct evidence we have of past life. As such, they are irreplaceable natural resources for science. It is important for students to understand that fossils should be used wisely, and that the students themselves can participate in their conservation and study. Amateur collectors should always follow standards of professional ethics, including discussing their finds with experts in a position to recognize exceptional or valuable specimens.

Hadrosaur neck vertebrae from New Mexico
Hadrosaur neck vertebrae from New Mexico

Keith Rigby, Jr., BLM

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Last updated: 11-13-2009