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The ‘indescribable’ fun of digging dinosaurs in Utah

Utah’s fossil history ranges from the earliest invertebrate fossils to mammoths ‘‘and everything in between.’’

First Published May 23 2014 07:22 am • Last Updated Jul 03 2014 05:20 pm

San Juan County » Jeanette Bonnell likes to play in the dirt. The 62-year-old retired human resources specialist is also pretty handy with a dentist’s drill.

Those two qualities, combined with fine attention to detail and a little detective work, make her the perfect volunteer for the Natural History Museum of Utah’s paleontology department.

At a glance

The Utah Bucket List

Check out the bucket list’s Facebook page — www.facebook.com/UtahBucketList — or follow @UtahBucketList on Twitter and tell us what’s on your list of things to do in this life.

‘Utah’s Bucket List 2,’ a collaboration between The Salt Lake Tribune and KUED-Ch. 7, will air in August.

Volunteering at the Natural History Museum of Utah

Staffing at the Natural History Museum of Utah is augmented by volunteers in every department. Spots in paleontology are popular and not always open so check the website — http://nhmu.utah.edu/volunteers — for a chance to become a dinosaur digger. The museum is now recruiting volunteers for visitor services and for an upcoming exhibit, “The Horse.”

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"I worked for 30 years behind a desk and when I retired, I said no more," Bonnell said while whisking away layers of dirt deposited in an ancient pond 300 million years ago in a remote location just outside what is now Canyonlands National Park. "The experience of finding your first fossil is indescribable."

Paleontologists come from around the world to a Utah landscape rich with bones of ancient creatures, but not everybody doing the digging, cleaning the fossils and even making the discoveries has a fancy title in front of their name.

"We have amazing volunteers. They discover fossils, they excavate fossils and back in the lab they prep them out," said Carrie Levitt, paleontology collections manager at the Utah museum, during a dig in April. "We would not be able to do the work we do as paleontologists without the volunteers."

Digging dinos » As a kid, Erin Finney loved visiting the museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He was particularly fascinated with the dinosaurs. So it is no surprise Finney ended up being the one who children visiting the Natural History Museum of Utah now dream of becoming when they grow up.

"What kid doesn’t love fossils?" said Finney, a seasoned volunteer in both the prep lab and on field trips with the museum’s paleontology department.

Five years ago, Finney was walking with a friend through the museum at its previous location on Presidents Circle at the University of Utah. They looked through the windows into the lab — the one with a "Employees and Volunteers Only" sign on the door — while people prepared specimens from the field with delicate tools and magnifying glasses.

"She turned to me and said, ‘You belong here,’ " Finney said. "I guess I do have an affinity for working in the lab and finding things."


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Last year while scouting possible dig sites in San Juan County, Finney found an important discovery on a steep slope.

"There was about 200 square yards I knew we had not prospected yet; a chunk of the map we had not looked at," Finney recalled. "I found one fish and then another and another and another."

With so many fossils in the same area the team refocused its efforts like crime scene detectives.

Their efforts paid off when what appears to be the snout of a phytosaur — a crocodile-like creature — was discovered sticking out of the cliff.

On the same trip Finney stumbled upon half of a limb bone of a hadrosaur, a duckbill dinosaur. He then spent hours looking for, and eventually finding, the other half of the bone.

"I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time, but I knew it was good," he said.

‘They belong to us as Americans’ » The Beehive State provides a plethora of fossils and is well known among paleontologists.

"Utah is the best place in North America to find fossils of almost any age," Randy Irmis, paleontology curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, said while working with volunteers at the ancient pond site. "We are really interested in what life was like 300 million years ago in Utah. This is one of the few sites that has a lot of different animals preserved and we can get a really good sense of that."

Sometimes finding dinosaurs only requires paying a little bit of attention while exploring Utah. But taking them home is against the law.

Utah’s fossil history "ranges from the beginnings when we first started to see invertebrate fossils all the way to mammoths and everything in between," said ReBecca Hunt-Foster, a Utah Canyon Country District paleontologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

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