‘Cow of the Cretaceous’: Helicopter crew, BLM aid CNCC in fossil recovery of Walter the hadrosaur
The remains of one of the region’s oldest residents got quite the ride this week.
On Thursday, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Montrose helitack crew aided by the Bureau of Land Management assisted Colorado Northwestern Community College paleontologists to recover fossil remains of a large 74 million-year-old duck-billed dinosaur from the hadrosaur family, according to a CNCC news release.
“This was a great opportunity to not only support CNCC, but simultaneously conduct wildland firefighter-helicopter training,” said Vince Welbaum, DFPC aviation unit chief, in the release.
The lift marks a milestone in a five-year journey from discovery to recovery as the DFPC helitack crew used a Bell 205++ Huey helicopter with a 100-foot long line and remote hook to lift the two plaster covered jackets using cargo nets. The loads were estimated to weigh more than 1,000 pounds each and contained the bulk of the fossilized remains, from the quarry onto flatbed trailers for transportation to a federal repository located on CNCC’s Craig campus.
The dinosaur Walter was found just outside of Rangely, Colorado in 2014 by science instructor Ellis Thompson-Ellis and her husband, Josh Ellis, when their Great Dane, named Walter, chose to rest beside a piece of the dinosaur’s exposed leg bone.
The fossils are able to remain at CNCC because the BLM designated the Craig campus a federal fossil repository — the Colorado Northwestern Field Museum — for the storage and study of fossil materials, including Walter, collected by the college.
Under the direction of Elizabeth “Liz” Johnson, curator of paleontology and science faculty at CNCC, students, community members, volunteers, and children all participated in unearthing Walter while working beside an experienced, mostly female, team, according to the release.
In video from CNCC, Johnson described the hadrosaur as being like the “cow of the Cretaceous.”
Excavation of the relatively intact dinosaur was done during summer dig experiences operated through CNCC’s community education. Many of the jackets, weighing between 400 to 650 pounds each, were removed with the help of CNCC’s athletic teams up cliffs and hostile terrain.
The Thursday lift aided in the removal of the chest, large pelvis bones, and many vertebra. The skull, and limbs have already been removed. The specimen is already noteworthy in the paleontology community for its discovery of skin-like impressions. Johnson and her collaborators hope that the skin-like impressions found are indeed preserved skin.
The cliff terrace that housed Walter for millions of years is an exposed layer of the Mesaverde formation. It was formed during the late Cretaceous period when Rangley was ocean front property along the large western interior Cretaceous seaway extending from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
“Northwestern Colorado is an incredibly understudied area and the quality of Walter’s preservation is very exciting,” said Tyler Bridges, molecular paleontologist and quarry crew chief.
Once back at CNCC, students enrolled in science classes are given the opportunity to free fossils from the jacket, clean them and study them.
Summer digs are offered to any person with a passion for fossils with the option to earn college credit. The next dig is scheduled for June 2020 in a newly discovered quarry on public lands managed by BLM.
“There are no other community colleges in the nation that we know of that are a paleontology repository,” Johnson said.
A learn-by-doing methodology was on display Friday at the Loudy-Simpson Park pond as Moffat County High School science students learned quickly whether or not they had a future in engineering.