Scientist seeks clues at Redlands dinosaur dig

When Elmer Riggs dug into the Morrison Formation on the Redlands in 1900 to disgorge what he said was the largest known dinosaur, he took the skeleton home to Chicago.

What he might have left behind isn’t known because Riggs, one of the foremost paleontologists of his day, didn’t make a quarry map.

On Wednesday, John Foster, director of paleontology for the Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey, began to rectify that with the help of a 2.5-pound bundle of carbon fiber, six rotors, and a camera hovering more than 100 feet above the rocks overlooking the quarry site on South Camp Road.

It’s possible a turkey vulture’s-eye view of the 111-year-old quarry could yield enough new information to justify reopening Riggs’ original dig, Foster said.

“I’m sure he got everything he saw on the surface,” Foster said of Riggs’ original dig. “But I don’t think that means there might not be a lot more still there.”

Almost as if they expected some success, a half-dozen turkey vultures circled high above the quarry as Foster and others prepared to look anew at the place where Riggs dug up the dinosaur.

To learn more about what might lurk beneath the surface, Foster studied ground-level photos of the quarry. Where Riggs fell short as a cartographer, he might have recovered with photography.

Many of the boulders that showed up in the photos that Riggs commissioned remain recognizable, enough so that Foster and several volunteers marked them with 16 white blocks and flags. The marks will help Foster identify them so they can be marked on aerial photos.

Examining the quarry site from an aerial vantage point will offer the museum’s Western Investigations Team the chance to piece together information from the old photos along with new ones and determine more about how the animal lay when it died some 148 million years ago. With that, he might learn more about what else could be expected a few feet beneath the surface, Foster said.

Providing that aerial view was the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department’s Draganflyer X6 helicopter and its operator, deputy sheriff Ben Miller, the quartermaster for the department.

With Miller at the Draganflyer’s controls and Foster peering via virtual hookup through the eye of the camera mounted on the craft, the pair began the process of mapping the quarry area.

Miller will download a series of “small, high-quality photos, stitch them together and end up with one big, high-quality photo,” he said.

Once he compares Riggs’ photos with Miller’s, Foster said, he probably will have to sketch in the bones to complete the picture and then decide what step to take next.

A cast of Riggs’ brachiosaur skeleton, meanwhile, still stands guard outside the Field Museum in Chicago.


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