Walter the Great Dane is no longer with us, having passed away last fall.
Neither is Walter the duckbilled dinosaur. He, or maybe she, died around 74 million years ago near Rangely.
Both are now linked, and remembered, by their common name. The name of the big pooch owned by a local couple was given to the big dinosaur the couple discovered around five years ago.
Josh Ellis and Ellis Thompson-Ellis live in Grand Junction now, but lived in Rangely when they found Walter the dinosaur while hiking on Bureau of Land Management land with their dog. Hence the decision by Thompson-Ellis, then a science instructor at Colorado Northwestern Community College, to name the dinosaur after the canine companion the couple loved.
"It wound up being a fitting name," she said.
She said Walter the dog was big, lanky, goofy and a little stubborn, sharing at least some characteristics with Walter the dinosaur. While their dog accompanied them on fossil-hunting forays, including the one involving the big discovery, the couple is careful not to suggest Walter actually played any greater role than that in the discovery, contrary to stories they've heard to that effect. He did spend a lot of time with them at the site as they revisited the dinosaur's remains.
"We're happy that we chose to name it after him," she said.
Ever since they found Walter the dinosaur, Thompson-Ellis and Ellis had a hand in a project to excavate the fossilized remains. That project culminated Thursday with a helicopter airlifting two plaster-covered jackets weighing more than 1,000 pounds each and containing the bulk of the fossilized remains, according to a news release issued this week by CNCC, the BLM and the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. The state agency was able to lend the services of a helitack crew and a helicopter after having responded to a wildfire at Dinosaur National Monument, helping the college while letting the crew get in some training.
The helicopter operations ended the field work involved in removing the dinosaur fossils, but now the effort to learn more about it shifts to CNCC's Craig campus and a BLM-designated federal fossil repository called the Colorado Northwestern Field Museum. There, fossils can be freed from their protective jackets, cleaned, stored and studied by CNCC science students. To CNCC's knowledge, no other community college in the country is home to such a repository.
The dinosaur's discovery came thanks to the hobby Thompson-Ellis and Ellis had taken up of exploring the back country and looking for fossils during the three years they lived in Rangely.
"There's basically fossils all over the place up there," Ellis said.
One day they were out with friends and Walter and came to the end of a drainage, and the group came across a fossil of a dinosaur femur, weighing perhaps 25 or 30 pounds and buried in the sand.
"We started looking around that area and just more and more pieces popped up," Ellis said.
They made more visits to the site and soon found skin-like impressions. Elizabeth "Liz" Johnson, curator of paleontology and a science faculty member at CNCC, said those remains appear to be fossilized skin, and research is ongoing into whether what has been found includes some remaining components of actual skin. She said the site includes "tons" of skin-like remains. The dinosaur was a member of the hadrosaur family, and Johnson said that for some reason hadrosaurs' skin preserved much better than many dinosaurs.
"It's pretty incredible stuff," Thompson-Ellis said of the skin-like fossils that appear to show features such as scales and wart-like features.
She said the dinosaur was old and shows signs of arthritis. It also was big for its kind, she said.
Johnson described it as the length of a school bus and maybe taller than a bus.
Thompson-Ellis and Johnson built on the relatively intact dinosaur's discovery by creating a student paleontology course that included field paleontology work. Over the years, students, community members and children all helped to dig up the remains in operations run through CNCC's Community Education program. Some of the plaster-covered jackets removed early from the scene weighed up to 650 pounds, and CNCC athletes helped move some of them up cliffs and through challenging terrain. The skull and limb bones were removed over time, but Thursday's airlift involved the chest, large pelvis bones, part of a jaw, and many vertebrae, among other fossils.
Johnson said CNCC now offers an associate's degree in paleontology. Students can get unique field work while at CNCC because of the fossil-rich country in the region, before continuing their studies in the subject at a four-year school.
While the field work is done for Walter the dinosaur, CNCC is involved with a new project on BLM land in the Irish Canyon area of Moffat County. Johnson said there are numerous sites in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties that merit field work, but the site she's focusing on is of particular interest because it consists of a bone bed of both large and small dinosaurs. This one includes long-necked animals believed to be sauropods and what may be small raptors, among other dinosaur-era creatures.
She said while digging up one dinosaur is interesting, digging through a bone bed consisting of various species shows who was living with whom and how they interacted, which is far more instructive. A dig is planned next June to let people get a chance to participate in recovering fossils at the site.
For Ellis and Thompson-Ellis, the student and community involvement that followed the discovery of Walter has been the most valuable part of the whole experience. They've joined hundreds of people who over multiple years have painstakingly unearthed Walter's remains, using everything from jackhammers to brushes, while working in heat and harsh terrain, all because they share the couple's interest in dinosaur fossils.
Said Ellis, "We've met so many people over the years from this project. I think it enriched some minds."
Said Thompson-Ellis, "I know it changed the course of a lot of people's lives, (people) we're now friends with."
She and her husband are from the southeastern United States. These days Thompson-Ellis works as a community outreach specialist for the Grand Junction Fire Department and Ellis works locally as an electrician.
They also now have another Great Dane.
"His name is Norman," Thompson-Ellis said.
"I don't know if he's going to help us go on a walk and find a dinosaur, though. We'll see," she said.
Said Ellis, "We're optimistic that he's got some dinosaur-finding blood in him, but who knows."