THE UTAHRAPTOR PROJECT
Trapped in an 18,000-pound block of quicksand now turned to stone is a hidden treasure of well-preserved Utahraptor fossils. Utahraptor ostrommaysorum is a large (around five meters or 18 feet long), feathered, predatory theropod dinosaur from Utah’s early Cretaceous (~124 million years ago). Utahraptors sported huge sickle claws on their second toes, with the largest specimen measuring at 22 cm (8.7”) long. Utahraptor is a dromaeosaurid dinosaur — popularly called “raptors” based on the Jurassic Park movie franchise shorthand for it's sickle-clawed stars.
The illustration above shows the suspected setting for the origin of this amazing fossil block. We’ve found bones of an iguanodontid dinosaur that we think got mired in quicksand. So far, we’ve found bones from perhaps six individual Utahraptors, and we think they were attracted to the quicksand mire by the easy prey. We also think the Utahraptors became mired and and died together over a relatively short period of time. This block could provide evidence for pack hunting behavior in Utahraptors. We have no idea how many individual dinosaurs might be awaiting discovery in this block.
We have a nine-ton block of rock full of dinosaur bones and it’s time to find out what’s inside! The only way to find out is to carefully reveal the bones, a subdiscipline of paleontology known as preparation. The few amazing bones that have already been prepared indicate this is going to be an exciting project with cool new discoveries almost daily! Help us to make this project happen
via the GoFundMe page at the link below — and join the team as the scientific process unfolds on our blog and email updates. We’re asking for your support so that we can gain the maximum amount of scientific data during preparation, and provide an exciting educational window into this important paleontological project.
Click the Donate Now link to visit the GoFundMe fundraiser.
Utahraptor Project GoFundMe Site
Matt Stikes, a former graduate student at Northern Arizona University, discovered the site and reported it to the Utah Geological Survey in 2001. The site is on Utah State land in east-central Utah, north of Arches National Park. A single limb bone protruding from the rock was the tantalizing clue that prompted Utah Geological Survey paleontologists to further investigate the site.
Initial excavations of the 125-million-year-old site reveal the remains of several well-preserved Utahraptors ranging in size from tiny juveniles to adults, as well as at least two Iguanodont dinosaurs. Was this a kill site? We also learned the bone-bearing layer is three feet thick!
Utah Geological Survey paleontologists Jim Kirkland, Scott Madsen and Don DeBlieux along with many volunteers excavated the enormous sandstone block over ten consecutive seasons of fieldwork. Normally, a large fossil find would be broken into smaller pieces for transport, but the fossil density and importance of this block meant keeping it almost entirely intact .
Volunteers and businesses donated their services to recover the nine-ton block from its steep hillside location and move it to DNR. All fossils within the block are owned by the State of Utah and after preparation, their final repository will be with the Natural History Museum of Utah. The massive fossil block is now in the preparation lab at the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah.
Upon securing the necessary funding, one the world’s top micropreparators, former UGS paleontologist Scott Madsen, and colleagues anticipate spending 5 years or more preparing the Utahraptor block in the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point’s paleontology lab. Your donation will directly support preparation of the raptor fossils, and help us purchase the specialized equipment needed for preparation.
As the fossil preparation work advances, paleontologists will be studying the fossils. A number of groundbreaking studies could come from this unprecedented trove of Utahraptor fossils. But before the science can progress, we need your help with funding the fossil preparation so the fossils can be studied.
SCIENCE – WHY WE'RE DOING THIS
We are not doing this project just for show or to collect trophies. We are part of a larger effort led by Utah State Paleontologist, Jim Kirkland, who has spent decades studying a rock unit in Utah called the Cedar Mountain Formation in order to understand the Early Cretaceous ecosystem. We want to know everything about it from how much it rained to what amazing creatures lived in its forests and deserts and floodplains 125 million years ago. The contents of this block will tell us more about Utahraptor and the world it lived in.
The fossils in this block can reveal a lot of information about how they came to be where they are. The geological evidence has already been investigated and this paper has been published in the journal Palaios describing this unusual blob of sandstone full of bones. It represents what geologists refer to as a “dewatering feature”, what most of us call quicksand. One day back in the Lower Cretaceous, some liquid sand oozed up through a break in the surface of a mudflat . It is easy to picture some plant-eating iguanodonts lured to water and dying in the quicksand, in turn luring in the predatory Utahraptors for an easy lunch, only to find themselves trapped as well. Did the Utahraptors arrive in packs, or maybe a family or two, or does this represent days or even weeks of many dinosaurs struggling to get out of the sand and losing the battle? We think we may be able to figure some of this out, and a technique called photogrammetry might help us out.
Photogrammetry is a technique that uses many photos of an object from different points of view. These images are then processed using special software to render a 3-dimensional representation of the subject. If we use this technique as we prepare our way down through 3 feet of rock and bone, we’ll end up with a unique 3-D model of a dinosaur deathtrap. And who knows what other creatures may have met their end in the quicksand? There is only one way to find out- prepare the block!
“Preparation” is the art and science of removing rock from bone and stabilizing fossils for exhibition, storage, and most importantly, science; a person who does this is a Preparator. It is the heart of what this project is all about. We have already learned that the preparation of this block is not for amateurs, in fact, it is some of the most difficult and complicated we have ever seen. In spite of superb preservation (look at some of our photos) many of the bones are riddled with cracks, stacked like Pick-Up-Sticks, and incredibly tiny. As Chief Preparator on this project, Scott Madsen plans to train a small team of carefully picked volunteers to work on this giant block. The preparation will be extremely tedious and time consuming, but preliminary work has shown that new and exciting discoveries will be made almost daily, so this is also a preparators dream!
Of course, this work is going to require some specialized tools. Given the size of the block and the numerous bones it contains, our plan is to attack the block from several sides at once. Almost all of the work will need to be done looking through microscopes mounted on long arms and floor stands surrounding the block. Small air scribes will speed up some of the process, but the most delicate work will be accomplished using pieces of carbide rod less than the thickness of pencil lead, also ground sharp under a microscope lens. Other preparation tools will include fiber optic lighting, grinders, and an assortment of glues and preservatives.
Paleontologists from the Utah Geological Survey and staff with Thanksgiving Point’s Museum of Ancient Life have formed a partnership with the goals of insuring the Utahraptor block receives the highest quality preparation, maximizes public access and educational opportunities, and produces good science. Our team is composed of experienced preparators and scientists from
various disciplines, but we recognize what a great opportunity this is to teach and train new students of paleontology and preparation, as well as involve the general public in a great learning experience.
Meet the key people who have been taking this project from the field to this exciting phase of preparation:
James I. Kirkland is the Utah State Paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey. He has worked with dinosaur remains from the southwest United States of America and has been responsible for discovering many new and important genera. Jim named and described Utahraptor in 1993.
Don has been with the Utah Geological Survey for 14 years where he oversees their paleontological field program and preparation lab. He has been doing field work in the western US and Africa for the last 30 years. Don’s research interests include fossil mammals and dinosaurs. Don will be assisting with the preparation and mapping of the Utahraptor block.
Scott Madsen has collected and prepared vertebrate fossils from the Colorado Plateau for 37 years. His expertise is preparing microvertebrate fossils – the small animals like mammals, lizards, frogs, and baby dinosaurs. He works almost entirely with a microscope and carbide needles for precision preparation projects.
UTAHRAPTORS NEED YOUR SUPPORT
The donations raised will go towards funding the Lead Preparator position for one year and to acquire the essential equipment needed to get this project started. When we meet our funding goal, our Lead Preparator will be dedicated full time to performing much of the difficult micropreparation on the block, overseeing student and volunteer help, and ensuring the cameras are rolling for documentation and public viewing of the work. Our Lead Preparator and others working on the project will be able to share new discoveries daily, as well as discuss all aspects of the work on our blog.
Our first priority is to prepare the fossils in the best way possible, and a project as big as the Utahraptor block requires some specialized equipment. We have pared our list down to the most basic items needed to get us through our first year of preparation, and we've found the best possible sources for reasonably priced equipment.
Microscopes are the single most important pieces of equipment needed for this work. We will need two of them so that we can work on the massive block from different sides without getting in each other’s way. Each microscope will need to durable and mobile, with long boom arms so we can work far out into the middle of the block. Both microscopes will have cameras attached to video monitors so we can show you exactly what we are doing, even live-stream for special interactive events for project supporters!
Pneumatic preparation tools, a.k.a. airscribes, are critical for this work and we need a range of airscribes capable of moving a lot of rock as well prepping out the tiniest of Utahraptor baby teeth.
We will also need an assortment of special glues, consolidants, and solvents to repair and stabilize the dinosaur bones.
And we'll need some video and webcasting hardware to document and share the process.
Outcrop of the lower part of the Cedar Mountain Formation showing Stikes Quarry in 2014.
Utah State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland noting GPS and other locality data at the undisturbed site.
Aerial photos of the steep, remote quarry site.
Phil Policelli and Howard Firm at site helping trench the block and talking strategy for building a frame and removing the block.
Student with a Washington University group that helped with excavation work in 2006.
Scott Madsen and Don DeBlieux jacketing “Mushroom” at left and main block with plaster and burlap.
Quarry dog, Laika, doing her part.
Don DeBlieux, Jim Kirkland and Margaret Madsen at quarry, probably early 2013. Putting on multiple layers of plaster and burlap and trenching down around the main block.
Don as scale. The smaller "Mushroom" at upper right has finally been separated from the main block.
Tunneling under main block. The trench was a few feet deep at this point. Once this tunnel through the middle of the pedestal was dug there was no turning back.
Scott, Don, and Jim.
Moving day — November 8, 2014. Just prior to starting to pull the block and sled down.
Pulling the block on its skid down the temporary access road.
The block just visible under the cliff. The temporary road is visible to the right.
Another Utahraptor juvenile premaxilla (bone with teeth at skull front) found in June, 2015. This brings our count of this element from this quarry to six...so far.
Tiny Utahraptor premaxilla (left side, front of skull). The right premax was present but severely damaged in the rock fall.
This bone shows the kind of beautiful preservation we're seeing from these blocks. With tiny bones like this entombed in the quicksand block, there's no telling what else awaits discovery!
Another moving day. The block spent part of last winter safe and out of the weather inside a garage bay at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah. After some careful trimming the block was made narrow enough to fit through the doors at the paleo lab in the Museum of Ancient Life.
Press coverage of the block's arrival at the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point, Lehi, Utah. The public was pretty excited about this arrival!
Some of the crew who helped make this happen standing in front of the mega-block. The floor beneath the block was reinforced to insure that it could handle the 9 ton block.
Scott Madsen trimming the plaster jacket in April 2015. It took almost 3 weeks to remove about half of the plaster and burlap jacket.
Some of the first bones uncovered when the jacket was trimmed in early 2015 at Thanksgiving Point — including a femur, metatarsals (toe bones), and part of a juvenile Utahraptor jaw.
Another view of the femur uncovered while trimming the Utahraptor jacket. This is about the length of an average adult forearm, so probably belonged to a young animal.
Ribs and toe bones of a small Utahraptor recovered from random chunks of rock collected from the site after the rock fall. And these are just salvaged pieces!
World's First Discovery of Dinosaur Death Trap in Quicksand
by Utah Geological Survey
Scientific Paper On Quicksand Dinosaur Trap Taphonomy
KIrkland, Simpson, DeBlieux, Madsen,
Bogner, & Tibert
UGS Paleontologists Collect
by Don DeBlieux
January 6, 2015
Moving a Ten-Ton Dino Deathtrap
March 17, 2015
Utah Geological Survey Partners with Thanksgiving Point to Prepare 125 Million Year Old Utahraptor Fossils
UGS Official News Release
June 17, 2013
Dinosaur death trap outside Arches National Park could reveal a lot about how they lived
By John Hollenhorst
January 7, 2015
Mass Utahraptor grave may prove pack-hunting hypothesis
by Chuck Bednar
June 10, 2013
Paleontologists trying to move 5-ton herd of fossilized dinosaurs
KSL TV News, by John Hollenhorst
THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT
Utahraptor Project GoFundMe Site