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Dinosaurs in the West

The West, in both the United States and Canada, is the best place to see the remains of the "terrible lizards."

Stegosaurus stenops, an armored dinosaur, lives at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
Photo caption
Stegosaurus stenops, an armored dinosaur, lives at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

In the late 1800s, after the frenzied quest for California gold had calmed, a new rush to the West began. The prospectors this time were paleontologists. Commissioned by museums around the continent, they scanned the badlands of southern Alberta in Canada and scoured the rocky landscape of eastern Utah. They dug into stone and back into the past, looking not for fortune but for dinosaurs.

For over 160 million years, dinosaurs had ruled the earth. Finally they were capturing imaginations. Propelled by a surge in public interest, fossil hunters headed west because that's where the fossils were. Although dinosaurs had flourished around the globe, the record of their lives had been buried or erased over most of the planet. But the western United States and western Canada were special. Here the past had pushed its secrets to the surface.

Nowhere else on earth was the story of these ancient giants written so clearly in the rocks. Over the past century, these regions have yielded mother lodes of fossils. They have given up skulls of Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with teeth as big as bananas they have exposed the beer keg-size vertebrae of Barosaurus, a plant eater so tall it could have cleared the leaves from the gutter of a three-story building. The remains of these behemoths and the bones of thousands of their kin now greet visitors at museums in New York, London, Paris, and beyond. (Two complete skeletons of duck-billed hadrosaurs, found in Canada, now lie at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in a ship sunk by German forces during World War I as they were being transported to a European museum.) For every bone removed from these dinosaur-rich regions, countless others have yet to be unearthed. The West remains a prehistoric graveyard and the best place in the world for the public to learn about these titans. Some 65 million years after the last of them died, interest in the giant reptiles is very much alive.

"Dinosaurs captivate us because they're big, nasty, and very different," says James Kirkland, head paleontologist for the State of Utah. "We look at that world and begin to see a bigger picture. We get a different sense of where we stand in it all." Consider, for instance, that the dinosaurs' reign was 80 times longer than the entire span of human existence. They first appeared 228 million years ago and survived through the late Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. Their rule on earth ended with a bang, followed by a whimper—the leading theory being that an asteroid struck the planet and kicked up a cloud of debris that darkened the skies, caused temperature changes, and brought acid rain. When the dust finally settled, the dinosaurs were gone and the stage was set for the rise of mammals. (A common misconception is that dinosaurs and humans coexisted for a time, but in fact we missed each other by over 60 million years.)

Even so, the dinosaurs' run was a staggering success. They were dominant and diverse. Scientists have described some 900 species of dinosaurs out of the many thousands that existed. The very word dinosaur—Greek for "terrible lizard"—does them only partial credit. Dinosaurs are only distantly related to their lizard cousins, and their upright posture made them faster and nimbler. Nor were all dinosaurs terrible, though many were terribly efficient hunters. Size mattered, but not always. Brachiosaurus, a gentle vegetarian, was larger than a school bus, while meat-eating Coelophysis was no taller than a German shepherd and had cannibalistic tendencies.

New dinosaur specimens are being discovered all the time. With each find fresh questions emerge. Among them: Are dinosaurs really even extinct? Most scientists now believe that birds are the direct descendants of meat-eating dinosaurs and in modern birds we have living representatives of the Dinosauria. Certainly they still flourish in our minds. Dinosaurs have altered our perspective—their dimensions dwarf us their duration on earth shrinks all of human history to a speck of time.

"There are a lot of reasons to be interested in dinosaurs," Kirkland says. "One of the most compelling is that they give us a glimpse into a world that's gone. And how often do you get that?"

Travelers today can delve into the world of dinosaurs on trips to fossil troves around the West. The badlands of southern Alberta now make up most of Dinosaur Provincial Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1979 and widely regarded as one of the richest repositories of dinosaur fossils on the planet. The Royal Tyrrell Museum, also set along the Alberta badlands, is a scientific laboratory, dinosaur gallery, and public education center all in one. In eastern Utah, Dinosaur National Monument and the Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry encompass great burial grounds of the massive creatures. In the city of St. George, in southern Utah, their tracks stand on display in stone. For a glimpse of the really old West, visit some of these top dino destinations guaranteed to satisfy any fossil hunter.

Dinosaur Provincial Park
No, this isn't Jurassic Park. It's younger than that. The rocks here date to the late Cretaceous period, between 74.5 million and 77 million years ago. In that era, southeastern Alberta was a coastal floodplain, with a warm, wet climate similar to that of northern Florida today. A large inland sea cut down the center of the continent from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, and dinosaurs roamed everywhere, like a museum diorama sprung to life. Hadrosaurs, the cattle of the Cretaceous, gathered in great herds, as did horned dinosaurs (ceratopsians). These plant eaters spent a large part of their time avoiding predators like Gorgosaurus, a fearsome predecessor to Tyrannosaurus rex.

When dinosaurs died in this rain-soaked setting—downed by an enemy, say, or drowned in a flood—currents covered them in sediment. Gradually their skeletons turned to stone, and they remained in place for millions of years until the end of the last ice age, 15,000 years ago, when meltwaters from retreating glaciers scoured deep into the earth, exposing spectacular burial grounds. Those fossil graveyards lie amid the lunar landscape of the badlands that make up much of Dinosaur Provincial Park.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, when the first major fossil excavations began here, this region has yielded a greater diversity—37 species of dinosaurs—and greater number of bones than any other site of similar size in the world. Every year erosion peels away even more rock, revealing additional fossil-ized remains.

The park, established in 1955, is a magnet for leading paleontologists and amateur enthusiasts alike. It has three miles of self-guided walking trails with interpretive signs. The best way to see the area, however, is by taking the two-hour bus tours or guided hikes into the heart of the badlands. Here visitors learn about park geology and biology and get a firsthand look at past discoveries, including complete and articulated skeletons, which are preserved in the ground just as they were found.

 Royal Tyrrell Museum
Drumheller was a dying coal town when the dinosaurs rescued it from extinction—dinosaurs and the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The museum is situated on the edge of the badlands of the Red Deer River Valley, the same landscape that extends some 100 miles into Dinosaur Provincial Park.

The museum, which opened in 1985, is Drumheller's No. 1 tourist attraction and a leading center of scientific research. It was named for Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a geologic surveyor who ventured into the area in 1884 in search of coal and wound up unearthing a large dinosaur skull. Tyrrell's find—the first such fossil ever discovered in the region—belonged to Albertosaurus, a giant predator now featured on the museum's logo.

Though the exhibits cover all 3.9 billion years of life on earth, the "terrible lizards" have center stage. Dinosaur Hall traces their evolution and gives a sense of their diversity, with dozens of species mounted in realistic poses like props in a prehis-toric play. A Gorgosaurus stands over the carcass of a horned Centrosaurus; a Parasaurolophus shows off its distinctive crest, which may have functioned as a resonation chamber producing a low, trombonelike call.

Dinosaurs did very well. And then, of course, they didn't. One exhibit that gives special pause is a cross section of rock collected nearby that clearly shows the earth's KT boundary. This borderline between the rock layers of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods includes a stratum rich in iridium—an element found mostly in outer space—that stands as evidence of the asteroid impact which may have marked the end of the dinosaurs.

Dinosaur National Monument
In 1909, a paleontologist named Earl Douglass was hiking through the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah on a mission to find something big. He was following orders from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who had recently opened the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., and was hungry for natural history exhibits of a suitable size.

Douglass found something big, all right: eight bones from the tail of a giant Apatosaurus, known popularly as Brontosaurus. The discovery itself was significant but it was just a small s le of what was to come. The deeper Douglass and his team dug, the more bones they uncovered—a nearly complete skeleton of a juvenile Camarasaurus, the shoulder bone of spike-tailed Stegosaurus—about 350 tons of bones from 10 different species, all bunched together in a single quarry. The animals had perished during the Jurassic period, 150 million years ago. Their fossilized bones were buried in a riverbed and stayed that way until the same plate tectonics that formed the Rocky Mountains pushed them upward. Part of the once-flat riverbed is today the main attraction—an inclined rock face about 50 feet high and 150 feet long, packed with dinosaur bones exposed in relief. Seeing the wall of bones for the first time feels like a eureka moment, a fossil lover's version of striking gold. It isn't simply the number of bones that awes us, but the vision of remains as they were originally scattered.

Paleontologists still carry out excavations in various quarries scattered around the park, but those sites are not open to the public.

Museum Of Ancient Life
Battling T. rex skeletons are great to see. And Supersaurus—at 55 tons, one of the heaviest animals ever to walk on the earth—is another unforgettable sight. But this informative museum 20 minutes south of Salt Lake City also emphasizes interaction with more than 50 hands-on exhibits for dino fanatics. Children, especially, will find the place appealing. In Design-a-Dino, they can build their own dinosaurs with interchangeable body parts. The Erosion Table is an elaborate sandbox with a river running through it. Pulling up their sleeves and pushing piles of sand, kids can divert the currents to explore water's role in preserving dinosaur remains.

St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm
Millions of years ago, the site of St. George was on the edge of a lake. In February 2000, a local doctor clearing his land discovered a 12-inch-long animal track. Further exploration revealed more than a thousand well-preserved dinosaur footprints, giving this area one of the highest concentrations of early Jurassic tracks in the world. The evidence reveals what the creatures were doing: running, swimming, even sitting. Some of the prints have survived so well that you can actually see impressions of the skin on the underside of a dinosaur foot, a rarity.

Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
More than 12,000 fossils have been excavated from this site. It not only holds one of the densest concentrations of Jurassic dinosaur bones ever found but it also contains an unusually large proportion of predators to prey—nearly three-quarters of the excavated dinosaurs are carnivores. Visitors can see dinosaur bones protruding from the earth. Note that this quarry lies 13 miles down a dirt road.

Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park
Roughly 220 million years ago, the arid Nevada landscape was underwater and inhabited by prehistoric marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs, some over 50 feet long. These animals, which resembled dolphins, are not dinosaurs, though they lived at the same time. The area boasts the most abundant trove of ichthyosaur fossils in the world. Don't miss the park's fossil tour, a visit to a protected quarry.

Seven re-creations of prehistoric habitats trace life on earth from simple multicellular organisms to the first hominids. See Allosaurus and Stegosaurus square off, with an 80-foot Diplodocus looking on. Dinosaur bones include the skull of popular Triceratops and the skeletons of ferocious T. rex and the Colorado state fossil, Stegosaurus stenops. 2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, (303) 322-7009, —Dean Blaine

Mesa, Ariz.
Watch out! On three-story Dinosaur Mountain the anim-atronic Pentaceratops and Stegosaurus come to life. Dozens of fossils grace Dinosaur Hall, including a massive plant-eating Camarasaurus. 53 N. Macdonald, Mesa, Ariz., (480) 644-2230, —Dean Blaine

Bozeman, Mont.
The brand-new Hall of Horns and Teeth opens this summer, featuring a Torosaurusand a T. rex. World-renowned paleontologist Jack Horner is the curator (see interview, page 57). 600 W. Kagy Blvd., Bozeman, Mont., (406) 994-2251, —Dean Blaine

Albuquerque, N.M.
A 110-foot-long Seismosaurus poses in battle with a meat-eating Saurophaganax in the Jurassic Super Giants display. 1801 Mountain Rd. NW, Albuquerque, N.M., (505) 841-2800, —Dean Blaine

Jack Horner: dino-might paleontologist . . .
Probably the world's most famous dinosaur expert, Horner is said to have inspired the character of Alan Grant, chief scientist in the Jurassic Park book and movies. Dr. Horner is the curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont.

Q If dinosaurs lived most places on earth, shouldn't we find their fossils everywhere?
A No. We actually find them in few places, because we need special conditions to have any chance of finding them. First, there has to be deposition—the bones have to have been preserved. Then, of course, we have to be able to get to them. We find dinosaurs when rock of the right age is exposed. The western United States and Canada happen to be the best places in the world for the public to see what's going on in dinosaur research today.

Q What are the most common misconceptions people have about dinosaurs?
A People often think that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, or that the ice age wiped the dinosaurs out. And they often think of dinosaurs as big, dumb, and slow. Many of them were big. But they weren't dumb and they weren't slow.

Q Do you have a favorite dinosaur?
A Maybe the Maiasaura, because I named it. But I also like it because we've found lots of them and can learn a lot about them. That's my favorite dinosaur—the one we can learn the most about.

Q What are the most important questions remaining in dinosaur research?
A I think the most important discovery so far was the link between dinosaurs and birds. That's really changed the way we look at dinosaurs. There are also many questions we can ask that we might not be able to answer. A sauropod, for example, had such a huge body and long neck but such a tiny head. How was it able to feed itself, to get enough food to survive? It would be as though your head were the size of a peanut stuck at the end of a three-foot straw. It's the bumblebee problem—how's it fly? The proportions are all out of whack.

Q What is the relevance of dinosaur research to us today?
A It certainly doesn't put food on your table or gas in your car. But it does teach us about our past. I, for one, am very curious about what went before us. I suppose there are people who have no curiosity about the past but, well, I don't know what to do about them.

Photography courtesy of Denver Museum of Nature & Science

This article was first published in May 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.