The bone collector: Grand County now home to massive collection of dinosaur skeletons, some to be seen in the upcoming ‘Jurassic World’ sequel
May 29, 2018
When the first “Jurassic Park” novel and subsequent film debuted in the early 1990s, it captured the imaginations of a generation that dreamed of walking with dinosaurs and, while most moved on to dream other dreams, John Hankla found his life’s passion.
“When ‘Jurassic Park’ came out, my teacher read it to me and I fell in love with dinosaurs,” Hankla said. “I was in a full dinosaur craze. My dad found a dinosaur bone for sale. He bought it and put it up in our house.”
Hankla said he started working on a school report about the bone that eventually led him to a rancher in Wyoming who owned the land where the bone was dug up.
“I was on the phone with the rancher and he said they are still digging at the site,” Hankla said with a nostalgia induced grin. “He said, ‘Come on out.'”
Hankla and his father took a trip from Kentucky up to Wyoming and, after digging for a while, Hankla wandered off.
“I went off by myself and that magical moment happened, when a bone was working its way to the surface,” Hankla said. “I found an arm bone. I pulled it out and ran down the hill waving it around.”
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Last spring, Hankla, a formally trained research scientist who specializes in paleontology, moved to Grand County with his wife. When the couple made their move to the High Country, they brought along 40 complete dinosaur skeleton casts that Hankla rents out to museums and movie studios through his business, The Collective Collection. He also provides the skeletons to schools for short-term displays and educational presentations at no charge.
The casts themselves are plastic mold recreations made from actual dinosaur fossils, many of which Hankla himself helped dig from the earth. The creation of dinosaur skeleton casts like he has are produced from a combination of real fossils and skeletal sculpting work.
Hankla said a good dinosaur skeleton will cast from somewhere between 40 to 60 percent real bones, with sculptors filling in the rest. On rare occasions full skeletons are found, but paleontologists can largely fill in the missing gaps. For example, a cast may use a real left leg bone but require a sculptor to replicate the same bone for the dino’s right leg.
“If you think about what it takes for a fossil to survive,” Hankla said. “A dinosaur has to be in the right place at the right time to be covered up. It has to live in the right place and die in the right place.”
Then, he continued, as the whole region has to be moved by tectonic forces, it has to be pushed up through mountain building. Then it has to erode out and weather out. Then there is a day where it cracks the surface. “But a fossil at the surface won’t last long, if you don’t find it, it erodes to dust. So the collector has to be at the right place at the right time.”
Hankla’s collection includes a veritable who’s who of famous dinosaurs including a tyrannosaurs rex, triceratops and velociraptor, as well as many other species less commonly known by the general public such as an edmontosaurus, Hankla’s personal favorite dinosaur, and an allosaurus, the first fossil of which was discovered right in Grand County in 1869.
For the last 20 years, Hankla’s digs have focused almost exclusively on the edmontosaurus, excavated from a dig site in Wyoming where Hankla said researchers believe a herd of the duckbilled herbivores died while crossing a river. Hankla recently donated his vast collection of roughly 6,000 individual edmontosaurus bones to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. According to Hankla, it was the largest donation of dinosaur bones in the museum’s history.
Hankla’s business has offered full size dinosaur models for exhibits and displays in schools and museums for many years now but recently he entered the world of feature films.
“We had only worked with schools and museums but one day the phone rang and it was a movie set decorator,” Hankla said. “They wanted us to help with a movie called ‘Wonderstruck.’ Less than a couple months later, ‘Jurassic World’ called. We are still working with them.”
Several pieces of Hankla’s collection will be featured in the upcoming film “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” Hankla will also be working with the film production for upcoming movie premier events, bringing full sized skeletons to the premiers.
Hankla said his other passion project is a dinosaur digging camp for middle school students that he operates each summer. The program takes passionate kids and pairs them with actual research scientists working on real scientific studies. The bones excavated through the project are then retained by museums for future research.
He also said he hopes to make connections with local school officials to begin showing his dinosaur skeletons casts to local students.
“Our goal is to never have anything in a box,” Hankla said. “As often as possible we want to have them out somewhere cool. When they are rented out for big dollars that is cool, but when they are not they should be somewhere else for free. Schools are an awesome place to do that.”