No bones about it: CNCC dinosaur dig reveals rare find

Lauren Blair
Colorado Northwestern Community College Rangely student Bailey Walker, from Cedaredge, chisels away, Wednesday, at a "trench" to allow for a large chunk of sandstone containing fossils to be transported back to the CNCC Craig campus. Excavations over the last month revealed a four-foot-long tibia, or shin bone, which CNCC instructor and paleontologist Liz Johnson believes may belong to a dinosaur in the duckbill family. Other leg bones lie beneath the tibia.
Lauren Blair

— Locked in the sandstone cliffs near Rangely for approximately 74 million years, the bones of a dinosaur dubbed Walter are seeing the light of day for the first time in ages — literally.

Eleven students, two Colorado Northwestern Community College instructors and an army of volunteers have been busy jackhammering, rock-sawing and now chiseling away at the quarry since the end of May and are impressed by what they’re finding.

“You’re nervous because this is really something that hasn’t been seen in 74 million years and it’s in this amazing condition and there’s this kind of on-the-fly learning,” said dig student Lyle Carbutt, a high school science teacher from Alamosa who took the course for continuing education credit. “To stop and bask in the awesomeness of what we uncovered, there were squeals of joy.”

The dinosaur, possibly a member of the duckbill family, appears to be about 10 feet tall and perhaps 50 feet long, based on the initial speculations of Johnson and fellow CNCC science instructor, Ellis Thompson-Ellis.

“He’s big, he’s very big,” Johnson said. “We have found nine ribs which are a meter long… And then we have a tibia which is four feet long, and then we have femurs… and those are huge, so we have an animal which is massive.”

Originally discovered by Thompson-Ellis and her husband, Josh Ellis, more than a year ago, the specimen is a rare find. Not only does it appear to be a fairly complete animal, with articulated bones (meaning in their anatomically correct position) and a lot of bones in close proximity, but it’s also very well-preserved.

“We have tendons which are 30 inches long and those are very preserved,” Johnson said. “The real kicker is that associated with all these bones are skin-like impressions.”

What Johnson refers to are skin-like impressions in the rock surrounding the bone, which could perhaps indicate the preservation of skin itself, an extremely rare discovery. Before Johnson and Thompson-Ellis can confirm that possibility, significant molecular research and testing must be carried out, which is being undertaken by a graduate student from North Carolina State University, CNCC’s research institution partner in the dig.

Besides being a possibly ground-breaking find, the bones are also providing an educational window into the world of science and paleontology for community college students and dinosaur enthusiasts of all stripes, regardless of prior experience. Two student dig sessions, each two weeks long, filled the month of June and concluded on Friday.

“One of the reasons I love field work so much is it’s not just content, it’s not just vocabulary,” Thompson-Ellis said. “You’re thrown in and you’ve got to figure stuff out and you’ve gotta talk to people and you gotta ask questions. There’s no textbook.”

Students prepared for the hands-on experience with an online component before the dig, which included reading materials and videos. They also kept field journals and spent lunch breaks reviewing what they’d learned in nearby “shade caves” to escape from the heat.

“I might have had to wake up at 5:30 every single day, but I was already ready to go back and dig up another bone and see what I could find,” said Craig CNCC student Katherine Ellis, who participated on the first dig and is currently completing her Associates of Arts degree. “Liz likes to call this paleontology program a gateway science and it definitely is. It’s definitely opened some doors and opened up my mind to some possibilities for myself.”

The educational component was what helped Johnson, Thompson-Ellis and CNCC staff fast-track permitting the dig through the Bureau of Land Management, since the bones were found on federal land. BLM officials who were instrumental in the permitting process visited the site Tuesday and were “ecstatic,” according to Johnson.

“They were looking at the bones and saying, ‘Wow, you guys have potentially the most complete specimen in this area,” she said.

The bones uncovered during the summer dig will travel back to the Craig CNCC campus, an official federal fossil repository as of February, in plaster “jackets” to protect them. Most of the excavated bones will be carried out in large lumps of sandstone, which students have been chiseling away at for the last week, weighing from 500 pounds to around one ton.

Back in Craig, fall courses in paleontology lab techniques will teach students how to prepare and piece the bones together. Preparation and further research of the bones could take several years to complete.

The repository status affords CNCC the opportunity to build a paleontology program, something that no other community college in the nation offers, so far as Johnson and CNCC administrators are aware.

“It is a special opportunity. I think this is almost like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing because of the preservation and all of the things we are uncovering,” Carbutt said. “It feels like it’s kind of pushing the envelope of what paleontology is and can be because the techniques and everything are new. They’re pushing the boundaries of our understanding of dinosaurs and maybe even fossilization itself, with the things they’re looking at and trying to test and uncover.”

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or or follow her on Twitter @CDP_Education.

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