Rediscovering the Lost World

The Morrison Natural History Museum gives visitors a hands-on look at homegrown fossils—including the original Stegosaurus—that could change everything we thought we knew about dinosaurs.

April 2010

By 1993, when the Morrison museum was in its infancy, Yale returned No. 1850 to Morrison to add to the growing collection. Still, sediment removal on the fossils didn't start until 2008. "We had to come up with the right set of custom tools, or else everything would have just crumbled," says Matthew Mossbrucker, the museum's director, chief curator, and only full-time employee. "This is time-consuming, but if we didn't do it, we wouldn't know what we know now."

The museum also set out to rediscover Lakes' long-abandoned dig sites. Using the professor's field notes and drawings, the Mossbrucker-led team reopened several quarries, including what is believed to be Quarry 10—which, to the scientists' delight, had not been blown up after all. (Mossbrucker says Lakes actually ignored Marsh's order and, in "a brilliant bit of gamesmanship," spread the rumor about its destruction to keep Cope's workers away.)

Since digging resumed, there's been an avalanche of discoveries, including dozens more dinosaurs, notably at least two apatosaur specimens that were buried atop one another, a rare find. The scientists also discovered baby Apatosaurus prints that suggest the creatures ran using only their hind legs. Then, in 2006, Mossbrucker found 16 adult and baby Stegosaurus footprints, the first such hatchling tracks ever discovered, which demonstrated that the animals traveled in multi-generational herds. "Basically," he says, "we'd come across a Jurassic playground."

Last year, as work continued on the stegosaur fossil, Gottron, the volunteer, found a three-centimeter, tridentlike piece of darkened lungfish tooth embedded in sandstone a few inches from the fossil. While the museum's researchers still are interpreting its significance, the discovery could throw generations of conventional wisdom on its ear because lungfish were thought to exist only in extreme, desertlike climates. The Stegosaurus, on the other hand, was almost exclusively a jungle animal, relying on leafy plants for survival. The question now is whether our region was once more of a savannah, with significant, interchanging wet and dry periods. If so, this could add pivotal details to how paleontologists view the Jurassic era and the evolution of the Rocky Mountains.

And so, fretfully aware that I'm about to tear into a hugely important hunk of rock, I grasp the mini-jackhammer and press it against the sandstone. Chips of sediment clack against my plastic goggles as I work one edge of the fossil-stone, holding the tool so I can scrape bits of rock clinging to the browned fossil at the opposite end. The sandstone takes on a beautiful, grayish, worm-tracked patina. Maybe I'm not as bad at this as I first thought. After a few minutes, my left hand buzzing, I stop.

Bakker, the volunteer who'd joined Gottron and me to help monitor the mini-excavation, studies my work through a backlit magnifying glass, sounding a little bit like my dentist.

"Uh-huh. Hmmmm. Ooookaaayy."

Finally, he looks up at the two of us.

"Nice work," he says.

Later, I'm back in my car, basking in my post-discovery rush like a modern-day Indiana Jones. Before I can call my wife to brag, I feel a piece of what seems like my tooth fall between my cheek and my gum. Actually, several pieces, and soon I'm spitting bits into my hand. It's then I realize that I've got a mouthful of sandstone. Despite my fears about cleaning No. 1850, I'd apparently been smiling like an excited kid the entire time. m

Robert Sanchez is 5280's staff writer. E-mail him at [email protected].