“Oh, Lordy, Lordy! These are teeth connected to a jawbone,” said Ed Cole, Jr.
Leaning in as if he and Cole were colleagues, our 12-year-old son Josh brushed aside crumbled sandstone and said, “Look! There’s more bone.”
Cole uncovered another attached tooth. His voice rose: “My heart’s going a hundred miles a minute. This is the first time we’ve found teeth connected to jawbone in this whole ridge.”
We were outside Thermopolis, Wyo., at Warm Springs Ranch, where dinosaur bones were discovered in 1993. Since then, more than 1,000 bones - including two nearly complete camasaurus skeletons - have been removed.
Over 50 dig sites have been identified in this square mile of graygreen mudstone and buff sandstone. Because experts estimate it may take 150 years to find all the bones, amateurs are welcome to work alongside professionals in pay-to-dig programs.
Our family of four signed up for a day dig last August. We began with a half-hour orientation at Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a privately owned museum built in 1995. Next to the lab, where visitors watch technicians prepare and mount bones, we saw a nine-foot-tall camasaurus leg bone from the dig site.
“Do you think we’ll find anything?” asked our 14-year-old, Abram.
The shuttle bus jounced two miles through scrubby hills and up a gouged-out ridge, where bulldozers had peeled away sagebrush and juniper to expose bonebeds formed by an ancient stream channel. One geologist was jackhammering a stubborn piece of rock. A couple others were mapping and measuring huge exposed bones.
As we followed Cole a quartermile downhill to “our” dig site, I could feel dust caking my skin, pebbles working into my sandals. A blue tarp shaded lawn chairs and coolers from intense sun. I wondered how anyone could find anything but more rocks in this barren spot.
Cole pointed to a large bone in a cardboard box. “That’s the biggest we’ve found in this site so far this summer - probably a vertebra from a meat eater. A day digger found it yesterday,” he said.
He handed us each a rock hammer, pick, small shovel and paint brush, then showed how to loosen and split rock chunks, examine them and brush debris downhill.
“It takes half a day to get an eye for soil, to see differences in colors and shapes. But 99 percent of people find at least a bone fragment,” he said.
Forty minutes later, Cole said, “Here’s a chevron from a diplodocus … and here’s a rib.”
As we chipped along the rib, he explained that a chevron hung below each tailbone in a plant-eating dinosaur. Most chevrons were Y-shaped, but many diplodocus chevrons were V-shaped, like the one we were staring at.
When the rib’s whole front edge was exposed, our family was amazed.
The reddish fossilized rib was four feet long.
Cole remained blase. The rib seemed big to us, but in 1994 he’d uncovered a 450-pound sacrum (bone attaching backbone and pelvis) onsite. His father, Ed Cole, Sr., is the fossil prospector who discovered dinos at Warm Springs Ranch.
We lunched uphill under a canvas lean-to, listening to the geologists - all under age 30 - debate paleontological theories as easily as most people discuss sports or the weather.
Looking at plaster casts encasing stegosaur bones renewed our desire to discover something notable.
We trekked downhill again to move more rock - lots of it.
The sun was even hotter. No matter how much ice water and Mountain Dew we guzzled, we felt parched. Steve retreated under the tarp, but Abe and Josh weren’t ready to leave.
“Dusting rock is very peaceful,” Abe explained.
I asked Cole whether he ever gets bored, chipping at rocks day after day. “Are you kidding?” he replied. “I’m sitting where the largest animals that ever walked this earth once were. These bones sat here 150 million years, and now I’m touching them.
“Basically, what it takes is a willingness to walk and an interest in how rocks are formed. Then you can find anything,” he said.
Josh reexamined a bumpy rock. “Hey, is this anything?”
“Wow, this pebbled surface might be fossilized baby dinosaur skin. If it is, it’d be the first we’ve found on this ridge,” Cole said.
That’s when he uncovered the jawbone. “We’ve found dozens of teeth, but never any still attached to bone. We’ve got a chance to find a whole skull here!” Cole exclaimed.
The last shuttle bus arrived before we knew how much jawbone was buried. Our day dig was over. Cole needed to confer with the other geologists about the day’s discoveries. We parted, promising to keep in touch by e-mail.
Several months later, an e-mail confirmed that the chevron and rib were indeed from a diplodocus, as was the segment of upper jawbone. Though only parts of a skull had been been found, Cole said they had “exquisite detail and definition” between bone junctures.
The e-mail concluded, “Sorry, Josh, the fossilized baby dino skin turned out to be gypsum crystals.”
Josh didn’t mind. “Digging there was so much better than looking for fake bones in a sandbox at a museum. They actually let us discover things,” he said.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Day digs and dig-site tours By Joan Huyser-Honig Special to Travel There are several places in the U.S. and Canada where you can dig for dinosaurs or tour dig sites. All digs require advance reservation, though you can sometimes get last-minute spots for day digs. Digs anywhere depend on weather. Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Box 868, Thermopolis, WY 82443; (800) 455-3466; http://www.Wyoming.com/. Day digs: Late spring through early fall, daily; includes all materials, lunch, drinks and transportation between WDC and dig site; $100/person; $250/family of up to two adults and two children; $50 per extra child. Discounts for multiple days. Those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Kids’ digs let ages 8-13 tour WDC, draw and sculpt dinos, recognize fossils and dig with geologists. Offered June 24-25, July 8-9, August 12-13. $40 includes lunch. WDC: September-May, open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; June-August, open daily, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. $6 for ages 15-59; $3.50 for ages 5-14, 60 and up, and veterans: $15 for family of two adults and two kids, $3 for extra children (under age 5 are free). Special combination museum/dig site packages, good through July 1997 are $12, $7, $40 and $7 respectively. Dig site only: $10 and $7, no family rates. Museum of the Rockies Paleontology Field Program, Montana State University, 600 W. Kagy Blvd., Bozeman, MT 59717-2730; (406) 994-6618. Dig site is near Choteau, west of Great Falls, Mont. Here, in 1978, Dr. Jack Horner found a nest of baby hadrosaurs, the first evidence that dinosaurs cared for their young. Overnight digs include meals and lodging in Blackfeet tipis. Day digs: June 24 and June 27, includes lunch. Cost: $95 for ages 15 and up; $75 for ages 10-15, must be with an adult. Two-day dig: June 25-26, $350 each for ages 15 and up. Introductory field paleontology: June 28-July 4, July 12-18, July 19-25, Aug. 2-8; $1,100, ages 15 and up only. Advanced field paleontology: Aug. 10-20; $1,450, ages 15 and up only. Free dig-site tours: late June-late August, daily at 2 p.m. Dinosaur Expeditions, Museum of Western Colorado, 362 Main Street, Grand Junction, CO. 81502; (970) 241-9210. Museum paleontologists have found bones of apatosaur, allosaur, stegosaur and four other genera at nearby Mygatt-Moore Dinosaur Quarry. Digs include meals, transportation between museum and dig site, plus tent lodging for expeditions. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Free self-guided dig site tours allowed with prior museum permission. Day digs: May-October, most Thursdays and almost any day that four or more diggers sign up; $68 per person. Expeditions: May 12-17, July 7-12, Sept. 15-19; $689 per person. Dinosaur Discovery Expeditions, 550 Jurassic Court, Fruita, CO 81521; (800) 344-3466; http://www.dinamation.org. Dinamation International Society runs both Dinosaur Discovery Expeditions (DDE) and Devils Canyon Science & Learning Center, which has robotic dinosaurs. DDE doesn’t do one-day digs. Instead it leads paleontological trips in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Alaska and Mexico. Trips average five days, have varying age requirements and often include as much time in classrooms, labs and museums as at quarries or dig sites. Prices average $850-1,200 for ages 13 and up. Five-day Family Dino Camp, aimed at families with children ages 6-12, includes dino-related tours, crafts, classes and videos. But only adults actually dig fossils; kids look for fossil replicas. Start dates are June 28, July 12, July 26, August 9; $850 for adults; $575 for children. Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Bookings Office, Box 7500, Drumheller, Alberta, T0J 0Y0; (888) 440-4240 and (403) 823-7707; http:/ /www.tyrrellmuseum.com. North America’s largest paleontological museum lets amateurs work side-by-side with museum staff in southern Alberta Badlands. Finds have included T-rex, albertosaurus and pachyrhinosaurus, the last horned dinosaur of its type. All prices in Canadian dollars. Day digs: Weekends May 17-June 22, daily June 28-August 31; includes lunch, transportation and museum admission. Cost: $85 for ages 16 and up; $55, ages 10-15 accompanied by adult; 30 percent discount for second and subsequent days. Dig watch: Two-hour dig site tours, June 28-August 31, leave daily at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. $12 for ages 18 and up; $8, ages 7-17; ages 6 and under free; $30 for family (two adults and their children ages 17 and under). One- and two-week field experience: June 8-Aug. 31, Sunday-Saturday, for ages 18 and up only. Rugged work, includes rustic lodging in trailers or tents, all meals, work-related supplies. Priority given to two-week participants. $800 for one week; $1,500, two weeks; $600 for third and subsequent weeks. Non-refundable $300 deposit holds reservation. Free, self-guided tour at isolated dig site. East of Greybull, Wyo., you can watch paleontologists dig at two fossil beds during the summer. Get directions to either fossil bed by calling Greybull Museum, (307) 765-2444.