CNCC discovers new fossil specimens at Sand Wash Basin
Alvaro Garza, 20, always wanted to hunt fossils.
“I’ve dreamt of this since I was a little kid,” Garza said Saturday, Sept. 14 as excited fossil hunters from Colorado Community College’s student body and community education program fanned out into an area on the western side of Sand Wash Basin.
It was a cool early morning when the group of about 15 students and teachers met at CNCC’s Craig campus for a safety briefing before setting out into an area of BLM-managed land where bright green sediment has been exposed by years of wind, sun, and rain. The sediments could contain a dozen or more fossilized sea turtles and other creatures — pieces of which were visible on the ground within minutes of CNCC’s arrival Saturday.
“This is a piece of shell where the backbone connects,” Garza said as he showed a small group of hikers a green turtle bone fossilized by time and pressure.
Garza is one of a few paleontology students under the tutelage of Liz Johnson, curator of the only federal fossil depository of its kind anywhere in the United States, and professor of paleontology. Johnson brought the group to Sand Wash Saturday to make sure the myriad of fossils in the area are flagged for later retrieval.
“Were going to go to an area where we think some turtles are at,” Johnson said to the group. “You guys get to place some flags.”
Johnson said Saturday’s marking of fossils is similar to what others should do if they happen upon fossils on Bureau of Land Management land.
“Leave them where you find them,” Johnson said. “Mark them. Don’t take them. Let BLM know.”
Johnson said relationships forged between BLM and CNCC could allow future fossils to be added to CNCC’s Craig collection.
“Our Little Snake Field office is amazing,” Johnson said. “…They point out bones and we work well together.”
But Johnson is running out of room for those bones.
In July, much of Johnson’s workspace she’d use to clean priceless fossils was filled with Walter the hadrosaur. As “the cow of the cretaceous,” Walter is huge and now Johnson is almost out of room in the small space in CNCC’s basement.
“We are dealing with space shortages in the depository,” Johnson told Craig’s economic development committee Monday, Sept. 16. “Dinosaurs are big.”
The inability to acquire more space for fossil preparation will have stark consequences, according to Johnson.
“If we do not get physical space for our BLM depository, we will be forced to shut down our field operations,” Johnson said Tuesday.
Part of the reason fossils are still in storage is the need for them to be cleaned by a professional after field operations retrieve them.
“The reason we have moved so slowly is we do not have dedicated paleontology staff working on it,” Johnson said.
But with some specialized shelving and cabinetry along with some extra tools and possibly a museum exhibition manager, Johnson said CNCC’s federal fossil depository in Craig has a brighter future and will have a world-class accompanying dinosaur exhibit.
“We will be going through the first phase of our exhibit,” Johnson said. “We’ll have replicas made… I’m a huge fan of hands-on learning, so we’ll have a huge sandbox for kids to play in.”
Johnson said the community can expect to see some dino bones in the halls of CNCC by the end of the year.
“It’s a lot of work, but that’s what you can anticipate by the end of 2019,” Johnson said.
After this past weekend, Johnson will have even more work to do. The group of students dropped dozens of flags on multiple specimens at Sand Wash Saturday. At least one discovery Saturday may yield quality experience for CNCC’s paleontology students.
“There’s multiple bones in the rock,” said Janine Rinker, adjunct professor at CNCC, as she excitedly placed flags on multiple exposed fossilized structures protruding from a bright green sandstone on Saturday. “This is potentially something we’d look at getting an excavation permit instead of a surface collect…With these large bones in the rock, we could potentially bring a class out here.”
That’s part of why students — many from the east coast, according to Johnson — are beginning to choose CNCC for their paleontology program.
“You can come to CNCC and within a few hours, you’re hunting fossils,” Johnson said. “…We can do this on weekends.”
Part of the work Johnson and her students will be doing on Saturday’s specimens will be determining why and how they came to be such a brilliant green.
“This green layer is just weird,” Johnson said Saturday. “We need to do some analysis on it. Is it copper? We don’t know. But it sure is cool the fossils are green.”