Department

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

In my 33 years, I've been asked to clean my dinner plate, to clean my garage, and to clean up my act. Never have I been asked to clean a dinosaur. That is, until Fritz Gottron hands me the tool.

We're in the second-floor prep room at the Morrison Natural History Museum, and a football-size chunk of fossilized stegosaur encased in sandstone sits on the table in front of me. Gottron, a retired coal executive and museum volunteer, activates the pen-size mini-jackhammer, and the room fills with a dentist-office whir. When he passes the device to me, I balk.

"Are you sure I should be doing this?"

"It's idiot-proof," Gottron assures me.

"Well, then, you don't know me."

Ordinarily I'd rip into this 146-million-year-old bad boy like a third-grader, but this is no ordinary stegosaur. You see, 133 years ago, this fossil was taken from a dig site along the Dakota Hogback just outside town. It's from a pretty important stegosaur—the first-ever found in the world. As in, it's a really big deal. As in, I'm kind of freaking out.

I push the tool's power button and it hums with the portent of small-scale destruction. I let out a deep breath and look toward Gottron.

"Idiot-proof," he reminds me.

Morrison is best known as a town of 417 residents nestled in the shadow of a legendary concert venue. What makes it more unique, perhaps, is the nondescript building just outside of downtown. This improbable natural history museum—a two-story log cabin with a dirt driveway that hosts kids' birthday parties and is the starting point for fossil-finding tours of the area—looks more like a quirky Kansas roadside attraction than the home to a collection of prehistoric treasures that might one day redefine how we view Jurassic life.

Although most Coloradans probably don't know much about the stegosaur I'm about to liberate from its sandstone coffin, the town and the hillsides around it have earned a reputation as a paleontological paradise. For nearly 140 years, this area has been one of the world's most productive fossil beds, having yielded not only the first Stegosaurus—known as specimen No. 1850—but also the first Apatosaurus (a cousin of the Brontosaurus), the only tracks showing baby stegosaurs herding with adults, and thousands of other fossils and prehistoric ephemera that usually don't coexist on a single site. "This is the place that made the Jurassic [Period] famous," says Robert Bakker, Ph.D., a Boulder resident and curator of fossils at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. "You don't find good footprints and good bones together."

With that kind of prehistoric luck, it's not hyperbolic to say that Morrison was, if not the epicenter, then a seismic shock that enlivened the great dinosaur grab of the late 19th century, a nationwide scramble during which hundreds of dinosaurs were discovered and named. For five generations, paleontologists and geologists have dreamed and searched and fought over the high-sloped Morrison land like Robert Louis Stevenson characters. Competing scientists blew up quarries to discourage further exploration and paid off dig crews for directions to sites, while rival workers traded death threats in a land- and glory-grabbing mania akin to the Gold Rush a few decades earlier. And for a time, one of the stars of this quest was this sandstone-encased stegosaur I'm about to dig into.

The narrative of No. 1850's final moments will never be fully known. At the twilight of the Jurassic Period—about 140 million years ago, when the world's largest animals roamed and the first birds took flight—the stegosaur, about 13 feet tall at the hip, collapsed and died near what today is Colorado Highway 93. No. 1850 was buried in a slurry of pre-hardened sandstone that eventually became a prehistoric highway for its nesting and herding siblings and descendants. As those animals died out, the land exploded into hogback and mountains, the preserved dinosaurs sealed in a coffin of sediment.

Fast-forward a few thousand millennia to 1877, when Arthur Lakes, a mustachioed paleontology pioneer, minister, and teacher at what's now the Colorado School of Mines, identified fossils around Morrison that he called "so monstrous...so utterly beyond anything I had ever read or conceived possible." In awe, Lakes alerted Othniel Charles Marsh, an esteemed paleontologist at Yale who would become famous for naming more than 50 dinosaurs. Marsh ignored Lakes until learning that Lakes had also written to Marsh's archenemy, Edward Drinker Cope, a collector who'd eventually have more than 1,200 of his scholarly papers published. (The rivalry between Cope and Marsh had exploded in the late 1860s when Marsh noted in a scientific journal that Cope had incorrectly assembled an elasmosaur, putting its head where its tail should have been.)

Marsh hired Lakes, and work in Morrison began. Between 1877 and 1879, Lakes pulled out dozens of fossils, one set of which would become No. 1850. Lakes kept notes, drawings, and watercolors of his work, and after his crew moved out of the dig area, he wrote that, on Marsh's order, he'd had his crew blow up the most productive area, named Quarry 10, to discourage Cope's teams from searching it. (He also steadfastly kept its exact location a secret.)

Lakes shipped the fossils from No. 1850 to Yale, where Marsh studied the animal and named it Stegosaurus, Greek for "roof lizard." Further investigation was impossible because the sandstone surrounding the fossils was harder than concrete, making removal a precarious option, and Marsh moved No. 1850 to a museum basement at Yale, where it went virtually untouched for more than a century.

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].