By Nancy Whitlock
Burpee Natural History Museum
An exciting new discovery was made this year by Rockfordian Joe Mongan, a five-year Burpee Expedition volunteer, when he found a femur (upper leg bone) of a juvenile Diplodocus. The bone was in excellent condition, and excavations around the site uncovered dozens of new bones belonging to the same animal, such as: humerus (upper arm bone), scapula (shoulder blade), hip material, about 15 chest ribs, tibia (lower leg bones), the other femur and vertebra from the neck, back and tail.
Based on the size of the dinosaur, it was probably approximately 30-35 feet long when it died and most likely a juvenile, as adult Diplodocus could reach 90-100 feet in length. This specimen is almost 40 percent complete and in good condition, allowing Burpee fossil preparators to clean it and eventually mount the specimen for exhibit. It is nicknamed “Jimmy” after Mongan’s father.
The large number of specimens allows additional research to be conducted into how these sauropods changed as they matured. Growth lines in their bones will allow research to determine the approximate age of the animal when it died, how quickly it was growing and its size estimates.
As in the last two years, Burpee Education staff returned to the quarry in Utah and provided public programming over a 10-day period. In that time, more than 300 people were given tours of the quarry as work was continuing. Visitors to the quarry came from several different states and numerous countries, including The United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Poland and Canada. Some guests had been to the quarry in 2010 and returned to see what progress had been made. These tours are an important and exciting way to engage the general public on how science in the field is conducted and the importance of fossil resources.
Without a doubt, the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry is one of the largest dinosaur bonebeds discovered in the last 30 years and will continue to provide research, educational and exhibitional opportunities for years to come. This will allow Burpee Natural History Museum to strengthen its standing in the paleontological community and become a center for research into the latest Jurassic period, when giants roamed North America.
Local participants included Dr. Brian Bear, Joe Mongan and Jim Slesak.
Interview with Dr. James Kirkland, Utah State Paleontologist, Department of Natural Resources
By Susan Johnson
The Rock River Times interviewed Dr. James Kirkland, who has been affiliated with this project from its beginning.
TRRT: When was this discovery made? Where exactly was it in comparison to the earlier fossil discoveries?
Dr. Kirkland: They got a big part of the small skeleton of a Diplodocus earlier this summer in May or June — probably in the same Hanksville Burpee quarry. That’s one of the best dinosaur sites in the world, with thousands of animals. It would be like digging up the pyramids again.
TRRT: What was the climate like in this area when the Diplodocus lived there?
Dr. Kirkland: It would have been kind of dry, savanna — like the Great Plains of the Western United States today. Fairly dry, but there were ponds of water. Not desert, but not a swampy setting. They were buried along the river.
TRRT: Have you personally been to the site where it was discovered?
Dr. Kirkland: Yeah. I definitely saw the little cutie about the beginning of June.
TRRT: Did the people at the dig site contact you directly, or how did you happen to hear about it?
Dr. Kirkland: I was working a little bit with them off and on — when they first asked me where would be a good place to go. I am the state paleontologist. They contacted me.
TRRT: Any other comments you’d like to make?
Dr. Kirkland: It’s a wonderful specimen. It’s going to be a beauty. I’m very impressed with it. It’s a pretty cute animal — the kind of thing a paleontologist drools over.
TRRT: Burpee recently hosted the traveling “Giant African Dinosaurs” exhibit. Have you heard any information about the work of field researcher Dr. Roy Mackal? He’s the professor of biology from Chicago who in the 1980s organized two expeditions to attempt to find a live dinosaur in the Congo. Isn’t there political unrest in the area, too?
Dr. Kirkland: As I understood it, the big expedition — I knew the group that was going to fund them. It never came to pass. So, they never really did get the big money to go. … That whole area is mined for railroad minerals. The big mining companies all have plenty of guns. There’s a lot of geologists in there right now. The railroad mines it for oil. … [As for fossils], there was nothing there. One of the big things — no one has ever found a fossil bone during the Age of Mammals. If you had dinosaur survivors, they would have left fossils. There are no fossil remains. … The chances of hiding something that big from the entire world, in Africa, for 65 million years is pretty remote. … If there were big animals, we’d be seeing them.
Note: This last question was prompted by reports over the years from natives who live in the jungles of the central African countries of Congo, Cameroon and Gabon, where they say a large animal with a long neck, long tail and round-shaped tracks with three claws has been sighted. Dr. Mackal, a Chicago professor of biology, organized two expeditions in the 1980s and talked to the natives personally. Though he and his group never saw the mysterious animal the natives called “Mokele-mbembe,” some unusual tracks were found, and upon showing pictures of various animals to the residents, they pointed to the picture of a giant sauropod. The denseness of the jungle and the ever-present swamp gas made it almost impossible to penetrate the area very far. Once highly respected, Dr. Mackal’s reputation has suffered from accounts by other researchers who try to discredit his work. He was featured on the Discovery Channel, which also left the question open. It may be worth noting that Africa is also the home of another animal that scientists once dismissed as a myth — the gorilla.
From the July 13-19, 2011 issue