By Justin Malloy

How rare is it for dinosaurs to become fossils? Let the esteemed author Bill Bryson explain:

“It isn’t easy to become a fossil. The fate of nearly all living organisms- over 99.9 percent of them- is to compost down to nothingness. When your spark is gone, every molecule you own will be nibbled off you or sluiced away to be put to use in some other system. That’s just the way it is. Even if you make it into the small pool of organisms, the less than 0.1 percent, that don’t get devoured, the chances of being fossilized are very small…

Only one born in a billion, it is thought, ever becomes fossilized. If that is so, it means that the complete fossil legacy of all the Americans alive today- that’s 270 million people with 206 bones each- will only be about fifty bones, one quarter of a complete skeleton. That’s not to say of course that any of these bones will actually be found.”

― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (pg. 332)

Overlook of the Yampa RiverWhen I’m floating through the canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, I often think about that quote. The odds seem so strikingly unfathomable of a bone becoming a fossil, and then for someone to find it, know what it is, and dig it up that it’s hard to believe we’ve found any at all, let alone enough to fill museums. There’s something wonderful- and I use that word deliberately- about dinosaurs, how they toe the line between “real” and “imaginary”. Those that spend time in pursuit of finding and unearthing them do so out of a sense of wonder. The more they learn and discover about dinosaurs, the less imaginary they become.

Scientists use more than just a sense of wonder in their search for fossils. Over the last 150-plus years of research, paleontologists have learned how to narrow where to look and where not to look. When the right spot is found and surveyed, preliminary digs begin and with a large amount of luck, fossils may be discovered. This is when the hard work begins. Using special techniques that involve careful digging with a variety of tools, from sharpened pencils to power saws to plaster for marking and separating fossils from other rock and dirt, the layman would be shocked at the attention to detail of the process. It can take several years to excavate a skeleton.

Utah is an important place in the world of paleontology. According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, the state boasts the largest diversity of dinosaur fossils discovered, ranging across the “entire age of dinosaurs”. No site in the world claims a higher concentration of bones than that of Dinosaur National Monument in the northeast corner of the state. When paleontologist Earl Douglass discovered eight Apatosaurus vertebrae at eye level in the uplifted Morrison formation just outside Vernal, Utah in 1908, more than just chance was on his side. The Morrison, he knew, was a rock layer formed in the late Jurassic Period by mud and shale- a perfect combination for the preservation of fossils. When he was hiking nearby and saw the large inverted uplifts of Morrison caused by an anticline, he figured this was a decent place to search.

Sure enough, he struck paleontology gold, and luckily for future generations, he had the presence of mind toEcho Park Overlook leave the majority of his discovery in place as a natural museum in the rock (the present-day Dinosaur Quarry), and FDR declared it a national monument the following year. In 1938, the monument was expanded to include the natural wonder held in the river corridors.

It is with a similar type of wonder to that of dinosaur hunters that Holiday guides and guests travel with through the monument’s canyons (the Gates of Lodore and the Yampa), though it is typically not dinosaurs we pursue. Instead it’s a connection to the natural world, a reprieve from our busy lives, and a desire for adventure.

The following names we have dubbed boats with were done so as an ode to the park we love to visit, the creatures that roamed there, and the sense of wonder with which humans have used in the search for greater truths.

Rex

Perhaps the most famous of all dinosaurs, the fossils of Tyrannosaurus rex have been found all over Utah. The king of the tyrant lizards (Tyrannosaurus being Greek for “tyrant lizard” and “rex” Latin for “king”) measured as long as 40 feet from tip to tail, which is approximately the length of a school bus. During its fastest growth spurt, it’s believed individuals could gain as much as 1,500 pounds per year and adults could weigh up to eight tons.

T rex skeletonThey travelled on their two strong hind legs and using their 60 serrated teeth delivered a bite with nearly six tons of pressure, preying on smaller creatures, scavenging carcasses, and sometimes even eating each other. Owing most of its fame to the Spielberg classic “Jurassic Park”, they are believed to have been unable to run faster than 12 mph, meaning they would not have been able to catch a jeep, unlike in the film.

The first T. rex was discovered in Montana in 1902 by renowned fossil hunter Barnum Brown, who, six years later, discovered a nearly complete T. rex skeleton elsewhere in the same state. Utah has been home to the discovery of many T. rex, and recently a group of four, possibly five specimens were found in Grand Staircase National Monument. Scientists believe these creatures perished in a seasonal flood after a slow-burn fire, between 66 and 100 million years ago. Two other types of dinosaurs, as well as turtles, fish, rays, and alligators were found during the dig. Based on this study, it is now believed that T. rex hunted in packs, instead of the previous theory of them being solitary predators.

Utah Raptor

The state dinosaur of Utah, the Utah raptor can be thought of as a larger, slower version of the more popular velociraptor. The largest of its genus, it was first discovered near Moab in 1975 but did not receive much attention. In 1991, a large claw of a Utah raptor was found in Grand County, Utah, and based on these findings, the species was further described by paleontologist James Kirkland in a paper that was released around the same time as “Jurassic Park”. This confluence of events sparked a short period of notoriety for the dino, and even served as the inspiration for the logo of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

It is believed the Utah raptor roamed what is now the United States around 130 million years ago. Adults wereUtah raptor skeleton around 23 feet in length and weighed up to 1,000 pounds (comparable weight to a polar bear). They were probably covered in feathers and social creatures, hunting in packs and attacking their prey with the large, sharp, sickle-like retractable claws on each of its feet. Their thick femur bones suggest a strong kicking ability, and while not thought to be very fast, they were smart hunters who would use ambush techniques.

In 2001, Kirkland led an excavation after a graduate student discovered a bone protruding out of sandstone in eastern Utah. The site contained no less than seven individual Utah raptors, including one adult, four juveniles, and one hatchling, along with at least one iguanodon. Kirkland speculated that the pack came upon the iguanodon trapped in quicksand and attempted to feed on it before getting caught in the muck themselves. This type of site is known as a “predator trap” and has been found in other locations around Utah, including the Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry.

The excavation of Kirkland’s site took a decade and examination is still taking place. It may be one of the best-preserved predator traps yet discovered, with perhaps double the number of Utah raptor remains as previously believed.

 

Justin Malloy WriterOriginally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.