Digging for Dinosaurs (and Answers) - Part 1

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Why do people love dinosaurs? Was it their size? Their teeth? Their sudden extinction? Or was it that, once upon a time, monsters roamed the Earth.

Through a series of fortunate events, I found myself about to fulfill my lifelong dream of digging for dinosaurs. At the time, I worked for Pixar Animation Studios and was a member of their Paleontology Club (all wanna-be Alan Grants). Every year, a small group of Pixarians participated in an ongoing dig at the Waugh Quarry in Wyoming. When invited, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity and was soon driving through pine-covered mountains toward Hill City, South Dakota.

In the late 1800s, Custer's Expedition discovered gold in those same hills. Instantly, thousands of prospectors arrived hoping to strike it rich and swiftly established an unruly population of miscreants. "A town with a church on each end with a mile of Hell in between" is the oft-quoted slogan for the origins of Hill City. Perhaps it was the kind of people who arrived—troublesome treasure-hunters—or that the one-road town had 15 saloons.

Our first stop in town brought us to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a world-renowned center for all things prehistoric, primarily the excavation, preparation and sale of fossils. Within their walls, the Black Hills Institute (BHI) had its own museum which they, unlike others that bought or borrowed exhibits, literally dug up from the dirt themselves. Tyrannosaurus rex. Allosaurs. Pteranodons. Triceratops. Ammonites. Petrified eggs. Gigantic fish. Insects crystalized in amber. Carbon reliefs of plants. An extinct crocodile with jaws large enough to swallow its modern ancestor whole. The museum housed a vibrant carousel of primitive creatures unlike anywhere else I’d seen.

As purple, ink-injected thunderclouds stacked on the horizon, we entered the BHI’s cavernous warehouse where the sixty-five million year old skeleton of a life-sized T-rex leered down at us. Though menacing looking, his name sounded harmless: "Stan." Stan was one of many full-scale models BHI sold to museums and private collectors for over $100,000 to fund their continued research. The actual fossils, too precious and delicate to be used in exhibits, had been expertly duplicated in their laboratory.

What makes Stan unique is that 65% of his bones are intact. That incomplete percentage surprised me, until I learned that only a few bones of a single species are found at one site. The rest of the skeleton is often crushed, strewn apart or lost from eons of geological tumult. But, when bones from the same species are compiled from many different sites, modern paleontologists can create a complete structure of the animal. However, back in paleontology's early days, scientists connected all fossils they found together, creating various strange and nonexistent creatures from disparate species.

The Black Hills Institute had actually unearthed another T-rex, the best ever discovered, at 80% complete. This historic find positioned BHI for critical and financial success, but the fossils became embroiled in the longest legal battle in the history of South Dakota. The T-rex, aptly named, was "Sue."

Even before the valuable bones could be excavated, the ownership came into question. Did the fossils belong to Sue Hendrickson, the paleontologist who discovered and named the T-rex? Or Maurice Williams, the person who owned the land where it was found? Or the Sioux Tribe, of whom Maurice was a member? Or the underlying rights to the land held by the United States Department of the Interior?

The FBI and National Guard raided the dig site and confiscated everything until the dispute could be resolved. After a protracted legal battle, it was determined that the fossilized T-rex belonged to the land owner who quickly set up an auction. Within minutes, the Field Museum in Chicago had bought Sue for 8.3 million dollars—the most ever paid for dinosaur fossils. These fantastic creatures, though long extinct, are still big business for museums and collectors around the world (both legally and on the black market).

Early the next morning, our caravan of all-wheel drive SUVs rolled past the watchful faces of Mount Rushmore before turning west into the hills. We had been warned of rough-to-terrible roads, tornadoes and venomous snakes ahead—a far cry from the city life we knew in San Francisco. Winding through the Black Hills, we saw ponderosa pines prickling the hilltops. Lakes sunk like God’s blue footsteps. Black and twisted scars marking tornado touch-downs. Eventually, the green pillows of land smoothed to a beige blanket as we crossed into Wyoming.

Our penultimate stop before the dig site came into view: the quaint, sandstone ringed town of Hulett, known as "The Beginning of the West.” Devils Tower, an impressive backdrop to the small town, protruded over 1,300 feet high behind it. The tower was formed by an intrusion of igneous material, thought to be the remnants of a volcanic plug. It looked like a massive, stone incisor standing defiantly out of the earth's gums. Though the rock is over 40 million years old, the tower has only recently (in the geologic sense of the word) become visible due to erosion. Imagine that: ground-level was once 1,300 feet higher at this location, but erosion has whittled the softer dirt around the tower down to its present level.

The folktale we heard from locals about Devils Tower originated with the Sioux Tribe. They believed that two girls were playing when a pack of bears chased after them. The girls climbed onto a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit for help. Hearing their plea, Great Spirit pushed the rock (Devils Tower) up through the ground and into the heavens well out of the bears’ reach. The large grooves carved down the tower’s sides are from the bears' attempts to climb. We all wanted to visit, not because it was America’s first National Monument, but because every sunday night they screened a famous science-fiction film that took place there: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

After a general store stop for food and supplies, we drove off-road through fields of sheep, forded a shallow stream, and powered up the winding dirt path to where Waugh Quarry, and the dinosaur bones, were hidden.

Continued in Part 2...