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A Summer of Fossils

Summer is approaching. It’s time for geology students to go outside. Here are ideas from Marina and Celina Suarez, twin sisters who have loved fossils since they were in first grade. The sisters are working on their undergraduate geology degrees at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and will graduate in May 2003. Here, Marina and Celina each tell the story of one of their favorite days during their summer internships last year.

This summer, Celina and Marina will both do some paleontology research at the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Utah. “Yes we will be going together this summer,” Marina says. “I promise we didn’t plan it that way. It just worked out that way.” The sisters plan to attend graduate school to study paleontology and geology.


Searching for fossils in the Baldlands
Discovery in the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry


Searching for fossils in the Baldlands
Marina Suarez

At 5 a.m. my alarm began to beep. It was early for a day off, but I only had three weeks left of my summer internship at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, and I wanted to do as many things as possible with the time I had left. Today I was joining my friend Patricia Jannett and her thesis advisor Dennis Terry for field work. As an intern and volunteer interpretive ranger, I had offered to help. Patti and Dennis graciously allowed me to tag along with them and their colleagues.

Patti, Dennis and their colleagues contend that they have found evidence of the K-T Boundary in South Dakota in a layer of rocks they call the “Disturbed Zone.” On this day, they were taking samples. I was to look for fossils, my favorite activity since I was a first grader, digging in the dirt at recesses with the help of my twin sister Celina.

Patti and I met Dennis at the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, collected some
equipment and water from the back of his truck, and headed off.

We started hiking, with Dennis pointing out fossil roots and root traces. He wanted to show us a fossil turtle he found last summer. He was slightly ahead when he shouted.

“Ah! It’s been poached!” We stared down at the depression about one foot in diameter, empty now where the turtle had been removed.

“Maybe one of the paleo techs recovered it,” I suggested, trying to erase our disappointment. As interpretive rangers, we try to teach people why it is important to leave fossils in national parks for scientists and for others to enjoy. As part of my internship, I would give talks to park visitors about fossils. At the end of each talk, I would tell them about the Pig Dig, the park’s active paleontological site. This site holds the remains of an archeotherium, a pig-like animal, and of other animals from the Oligocene. I was usually assigned to the Pig Dig in the afternoons, giving visitors information and pointing out recent finds. On my days off, I helped out in the excavation. Visitors discovered the Pig Dig about eight years ago, and reported the find to park rangers. Now, many people can visit the site and scientists can learn about the extraordinary mammals that walked there around 33 million years ago.

Shaking off our disappointment at not seeing the turtle, we continued over the rolling hills of the prairie. After about a 30-minute hike, we made it to a spot where the Disturbed Zone was visible. Dennis pointed out the features. The Zone included mudstones and paleosols interbedded with sandstones, as in most of the park. But here, rock was jumbled up into a colorful mixture of pinks, yellows, greens and tans. The sandstones were rolled up into what Dennis calls jellyrolls.

Dennis and Patti started to take sediment samples, and I started to look for fossils at the side of a hill cut by a small stream. As the morning wore on it got hotter. Soon, the water in the stream was dried up and I still hadn’t found anything. I was starting to feel a bit embarrassed.

Finally, I found something. It was a greenish fleck about 1 square centimeter that looked like a piece of ammonite shell. We were not positive, but it was better than nothing. Later that day, Dennis explained why I was unable to find many fossils. The area had been uplifted and exposed to weathering and soil formation (hence the paleosols). These processes destroyed many of the fossils.

This was just one day in an unforgettable summer. The internship was a great opportunity and I hope others are inspired to participate. You get to meet other people interested in geology, visit some of the most beautiful places in the country, and teach others, especially kids, about geology. The Student Conservation Association and the GeoCorps program from the Geological Society of America both offer internships like the one I did last summer.

Discovery inthe Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
Celina Suarez

When Mike Leschin, a geologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Price, Utah, called me last summer to offer a Student Conservation Association visitor education position at the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, I didn’t hesitate for a second. Sure, it wasn’t as academic and research-oriented as some other projects I could have chosen to do over the summer of 2001, but it was an opportunity to do something I really love: paleontology.

I’ve always been interested in rocks and fossils. In first grade, my sister and my friends found a large rock on the playground full of marine fossils. We used pencils, plastic cafeteria spoons and forks, pens, other rocks, anything we could find to pry the fossil out. Unfortunately, the teachers didn’t think this was a very “safe” playground activity, and so they made us stop. In second grade we studied dinosaurs. I was hooked on dinosaurs; they were so interesting. I did whatever I could to get my hands on anything about fossils and dinosaurs.

Celina Suarez smiles as she works in the quarry.

My childhood fascination has continued into college, and has now become my career aspiration. Working at the famous Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry was the opportunity I was looking for. It is one of the largest deposits of Allosaurus fragilis in the world. I worked as an interpreter at the visitor center, explaining the history and mysteries of the quarry. After visitors finish their tour of the center, they can walk through the quarry buildings. The north building is open to the public, and has a catwalk in it so visitors can see bones in-situ, and see what a dinosaur dig site looks like. The south building is not open to the public, but while staff and volunteers from the University of Utah were there digging, they openly invited people in to see what new things were being discovered, and were happy to answer questions.

Scott Sampson, a paleontologist at the University of Utah, generously added the other three BLM volunteers and me to their excavation permit and allowed us to dig too, as long as we were officially trained by Mike Getty, director of collection at the Utah Museum of Natural History and the leader at the site. After a day of learning to dig properly, we were allowed to begin.
During my internship, I spent some days giving tours at the visitor center and other days working on cleaning bones taken out of the quarry. But my favorite days were those I spent digging in the quarry.

My main job was to lower mudstone in the area to a certain level, so that Bucky Gates, a master’s student at the University of Utah, could start excavation on his research square. Bucky’s project on the taphonomy of the quarry was the reason university paleontologists were there that summer.

My first really big discovery didn’t come for a few weeks, but it was the coolest feeling. It was my turn to dig that day. I busied myself moving small chunks of mudstone with my awl, and making sure there were no other pieces of bone in the chunks I took out. I moved a small piece of mudstone and revealed a section of a bone that had small divots lined up in a row. These divots were the places where nerve endings came out from the roots of the teeth. It was a jawbone, probably of an Allosaurus. I was so excited. I covered it with some vinac, a consolidant, and got up to run to the visitor center and spread the joy to the other volunteers. But when I got to the entrance of the building, I saw some visitors coming down the trail toward the building. I had to stay and answer questions, so I shared the joy with them. They left, and I ran up and got one of the other volunteers, Jon, who stay and answer questions, so I spread the joy with them. They left, and I ran up and got one of the other volunteers, Jon, who also had a little more experience excavating, to help me excavate the jaw further. As we cleaned, we discovered that it still had its teeth. We found that it was the dentary or lower left jawbone of an Allosaurus.

I had a great time digging, and I am even more determined to become a paleontologist. It’s a great feeling looking at something that hasn’t been seen for more than 100 million years. Imagining the Allosaurus in the flesh, walking around on the ground we were digging through, is just amazing. If you ever get a chance to pass through Price, Utah, you should go to the quarry. You might be able to see people actually digging while you are there.

For information about internship and volunteer positions, check out SCA and the GeoCorps program from the Geological Society of America.


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