Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Meeting the “Duck” of the Grand Staircase

Eric Lund is the Paleontology Lab Manager here at the Utah Museum of Natural History. Today, there's hot news about a dinosaur he helped uncover. Here's what he remembers about the process:

"The hadrosaur skull was discovered in 2004, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, by a group from the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in California. When I saw the skull in the field there wasn’t much to see, my first impressions were dulled by the lackluster plaster jacket that covered much of the exposed bones. However, we were dealing with a dinosaur skull, so no matter how much of it was there, it was pretty freakin’ awesome!

The day of the helicopter lift there was an air of excitement beaming from every person who was present. For me, there was some apprehension behind my excitement; a myriad of ‘What If’ questions ran through my head: What if the Helicopter can’t lift the block? What if the jacket isn’t strong enough? What if the helicopter pilot drops the specimen too early? All my uncertainties soon faded to jubilation as the helicopter crested the horizon with the skull safely nestled in the dangling cargo net below. I watched with amazement as the helicopter pilot expertly placed the specimen back on the ground. I think everyone exhaled a collective sigh of relief to see the job done. The skull then made the five hour journey up to the Utah Museum of Natural History, where I would get to spend the next two years preparing it for display.

Cutting open the plaster jacket back in the lab, I soon realized just how much work I had ahead of me; there was a lot of rock surrounding the bone. I cautiously began by removing the loose debris from the surface, and to my amazement much of the surrounding matrix practically fell off the bone. I quickly progressed removing much of the bulk that surrounded the bone. That was until I discovered the deeper matrix pockets were harder than cement, forcing me to use the mini-jack to break through the matrix. As the name of the tool implies it is a hand held jackhammer, and with a little elbow grease chunks through the matrix quite easily. I took things in stride and tediously removed the matrix chip by chip until the skull reached its present state. After spending two years preparing the skull, it makes me very proud to see it on display in the Museum for all to see."

To read more about naming this new species of dinosaur, check out what paleontologist Bucky Gates has to say about it!

Got questions for Eric about preparing the skull or working in a dinosaur lab? Click "Comments" and ask him yourself!