Scientists from around the globe dig into a dinosaur lover’s dream
Marc Jones has studied from half a world away some of the animals that trod the earth some 150 million years ago in what is now western Colorado.
This week. Jones and more than 50 other paleontologists from around the world got to dig into the Morrison Formation with their own tools, brush away the greenish clay-like soils and peer back into what the earth looked like eons ago.
“This is one of the places where you can get a handle on the entire ecosystem” of those times when dinosaurs and myriad other creatures trod, stomped, burrowed and otherwise inhabited the earth, said Jones, who traveled from the University of Adelaide in Australia to study the native lands and rock of the animals he studies.
In particular, Jones is studying the eilenodon, a smaller creature of the late Jurassic period and likely a relative of the tuatara, an order of reptiles of which only two species remain.
Eilenodon was abundant 200 million years ago, but unknown until paleontologist George Callison discovered the fossil remains of one in 1981 in the Fruita Paleontological Area.
For Jones, eilenodon is of particular interest because it appears to be a distant forebear of the tuatara, a reptile endemic to New Zealand.
The fossil remains suggest that eilenodon was more herbivore than carnivore. Its teeth are ridged, much as are those of hamsters and rabbits and it had powerful jaws that suggest it chewed dense, fibrous plant material. Jones said.
The tiny creature with a head about 10 centimeters long is intriguing because “it was a reptile acting like a mammal,” Jones said.
For Susannah Maidment, a paleontologist with Imperial College in London, the trip to western Colorado marked a first visit to the Morrison, the layer of earth in which she specializes.
An expert on the stegosaurus, one of the best-known denizens of the Morrison, Maidment will follow outcrops of the Morrison from Montana south with her husband and 1-year-old daughter in tow.
The Morrison, Maidment said, might seem like a simple formation, but it was deposited over a 10 million-year period, leading her to work on correlating the kinds of animals found at different levels within the formation, shedding new light on the late Jurassic.
The visit by paleontologists from around the world does a bit more than offer the opportunity to view the native rock in which many of the fossils they study have been found, said ReBecca Hunt-Foster, who organized the event, which included lectures at Dinosaur Journey in Fruita and visits to other parts of the Dinosaur Diamond.
“It’s nice to show the Morrison off to other people,” Hunt-Foster said.
The event was sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management, Museum of Western Colorado, Utah Friends of Paleontology, Utah Geological Society and the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah, where displays were exhibited.