U paleontologists discover new herbivores

By By Dan Treasure, Staff Writer

By Dan Treasure, Staff Writer

With help from students and community volunteers, the Utah Museum of Natural History is going through the long and arduous process of publishing results of newly discovered species of herbivore dinosaurs found in Utah.

The specimens, which are unlike any others in existence and are likely new a species of herbivore, were discovered in Southern Utah. Collections Manager of Paleontology Mike Getty was part of a scientific team that discovered one of the specimens in the Grand Staircase region of Utah.

This family of dinosaurs, which includes triceratops, was comprised of herbivores that lived during the Cretaceous Period 65 million to 145 million years ago and are known for the horns on their skull.

Although the new species was discovered in 2000, UMNH paleontologists have yet to officially publish their findings on the specific specimen.

Paleontologists frequently discover new species, but until the fossils can be cleaned from the rock they were found in and profiled by scientists, information about the specimen cannot be published. Many of the new species discovered are still unpublished five or six years later, because of the long process of preparation and comparative study.

However, most research in the paleontology field is funded by grants through institutions, such as the National Science Foundation, that want to see evidence of the use of their money through published work.

“We have to have tangible results before we can get continued funding,” Getty said.

The physical labor required to obtain specimens in the field and cleaning specimens in the lab will always be available regardless of funding because the majority of the workers are unpaid volunteers. The paleontology department has roughly 50 volunteers who work in the lab cleaning specimens, and 30 volunteers who find and dig out specimens in the field.

Unlike the majority of institutions in the country that require a background in paleontology to work on specimens, the U only requires a workshop on lab cleaning before one can join the team. Lab workers range from undergraduate students to retired citizens in the community.

“We walked in and asked if they let dummies play with their bones,” said Marilyn Harris, a retired Utah resident who works in the lab with her three friends from Ogden.

After taking the lab workshop, volunteers are encouraged to take the field workshop where they will be eligible to go out with the team in the spring and fall to dig for new specimens.

Elaine Jones owns a public relations firm but has been volunteering in the lab for eight years and has gone into the field on 13 trips. Jones described how work in the field is a lot less delicate than work at the museum.

After the surface of a specimen has been uncovered, Jones said the goal is simply to maintain the integrity of the fossils.

“The main thing we want to do is preserve the layout of the specimen,” said Jones. A material similar to body cast plaster is used to safeguard the fossils until the specimen can be transported back to the lab, she said.

Anyone interested can become part of the U’s paleontology efforts, discovering new species and advancing knowledge of the prehistoric world.

[email protected]@utah.edu