Field museum of discovery: Ever-growing dinosaur bone collection at CNCC educates inside and out

Sue Mock, manager of the Northwest Colorado Field Museum, explains how materials surrounding dinosaur bones, such as sandstone, plant matter and mud, can you tell a lot about conditions surrounding the time period the dinosaur was alive.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

The Northwest Colorado Field Museum at Colorado Northwestern Community College is a newly formed museum, started just three years ago and constantly growing.

The museum gives patrons a look inside of the process of discovery, excavation and study of dinosaur bones found in the region. The museum experience begins in a modern laboratory where Museum Manager Sue Mock uses dermestid beetles to compare the breakdown and aging of different types of animal bones to dinosaur bones that are collected through the paleontology program.

The laboratory is also used to make molds and castings of dinosaur bones once they have been excavated. The castings are used to create laboratory kits, which travel around regionally to paleontology students for study.

Castings and molds range in size from large dinosaur legs to smaller segments showing the surface texture of dinosaur skin.

Sue Mock, manager of the Northwest Colorado Field Museum, holds her arm to show the scale of a dinosaur leg bone casting.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

Mock said the laboratory will soon be creating smaller castings of dinosaur teeth, which will be available for sale. Proceeds from dinosaur tooth castings will directly benefit the Friends of National History, a new nonprofit whose mission is to support the paleontology program and museum and further natural history exploration in the region.

CNCC offers a two-year associate’s degree with a designation in paleontology studies, which allows students to advance to a paleontology degree with a four-year institution. The paleontology designation includes two weeks of field time doing hands-on work scouting and excavating.

It was during a fieldwork-scouting trip that the current dig site near Dinosaur National Monument was identified. Initially, the students found bones and upon further exploration discovered the site is more than just a set of bones. This site has the potential to be connected to the larger system within Dinosaur National Monument.

Mock said the team plans to clean up the current dig site this summer and turn it into something that patrons could come to view as an extension of the work being done with the field museum. The dig site is still in the discovery phases, and there is still a lot of work to be done before it becomes open to the public as part of the discovery.

“That’s the thing I like best about paleontology, you never know what’s coming next,” Mock said.

One of the significant finds that originated in the local area was a discovery of a dinosaur who has come to be known as Walter, named after Walter the Great Dane, who is credited for sniffing out the first set of bones that led to the find.

Sue Mock, manager of the Northwest Colorado Field Museum, shows samples of organic material that surrounds the bones of a dinosaur named Walter.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

Walter is a Hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur in the Tyrannosaurus family from the Cretaceous period. The bones were discovered by Ellis Thomson-Ellis, her husband Josh Ellis, and Walter, their dog, when they were out for a hike south of Rangely in 2014.

It took the college’s paleontology teams six years to excavate Walter’s bones and remains. The completed castings are now on display in the field museum, and the bones are being studied in the curatorial repository.

Northwest Colorado Field Museum has received Federal Curatorial Repository Status, a rare designation among paleontology programs. This means that if dinosaur bones are found here in the local region, the museum gets to keep them for further study and curation, Mock explained.

Aside from the extraction of the actual dinosaur bones, much can be learned from the materials surrounding the bones, Mock explained.

In the matter surrounding Walter, the paleontology program has found mangrove, sandstone, mud and other materials. The surrounding layers indicate the landscape and conditions present when Walter was alive and what potentially caused him to be fossilized at this place and time.

The curatorial repository is where bone pieces and fragments are reassembled to give students and preparers a full understanding of the dinosaurs’ full shape and size so they can be properly identified. The paleontology team has been able to piece enough of the bones collected from Walter to get an understanding of his size.

Most of the bones of Walter’s head and bill have also been found and pieced together, but there were some anomalies that caused the team to send the skull to a program in North Carolina for more study.

The bridge of Walter’s nose and a section of his bill is still cataloged in the field museum repository.

Constructed leg bone of Walter, Daspletosaurus torosus, on display in Northwest Colorado Field Museum.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

Among Walter’s remains, the repository contains other kinds of dinosaur bones from other periods.

Many of the fossils were found in regional landmarks including Duffy Mountain, where some small dinosaur prints from the Jurassic period have been found, and the Sandwash Basin, which is known for having plentiful turtle shell fossils, which are some of the youngest specimens in the collection.

The oldest dinosaur bone in the repository is a femur of a baby long neck, which is almost complete at over four feet long.

Sue Mock shows the oldest specimen from the museum curatorial repository, a femur of a baby long neck.
Amber Delay/Craig Press
The oldest specimen that CNCC curatorial repository contains is a femur of a baby long neck.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

Once CNCC Paleontology students have had their field experience and spent time in the repository studying and assembling bones, they are asked to focus on the curation side of the work.

Toward the end of their two-year program, students are asked to make a contribution to the dinosaur museum on the CNCC campus. This means that many of the field museum displays are created by students in the program to display their fieldwork and tell the story of paleontological discovery.

The corridors of the field museum are still taking shape as the dinosaurs’ bones are being pieced together. Mock has even created an installation called, “Fill the Wall, Fund a Scholar,” where patrons can fill the wall with colored pictures of dinosaurs across the different periods.

Once the wall is full, the college will hold a drawing to select a student to receive a $500 scholarship. The installation is a win-win for students to receive a scholarship and for patrons to be able to have their artwork displayed in a local museum for the semester.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday with free admission. Guests can make an appointment for a guided tour or do a self-guided tour.

Due to the repository being an active workspace, it does require accompaniment from college staff, but museum displays in the corridors are always open to the public. Because students are creating new installations each semester, the museum is always being updated.

Sue Mock, museum manager, with fragments of dinosaur bones that are currently in the process of being reassembled.
Amber Delay/Craig Press
Sue Mock, museum manager, holds pieces of the facial structure and skull of the dinosaur Walter, whose bones were found locally.
Amber Delay/Craig Press
Walter’s ankle bone on display in the CNCC Colorado Northwestern Field Museum.
Amber Delay/Craig Press
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