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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.’’

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"But in 2009 a law was passed to protect paleo resources and all vertebrate fossils," she said. "If you find those, don’t collect them."

Irmis and Hunt-Foster say people who discover fossils on public lands should report their findings to the BLM or a museum.

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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The Natural History Museum of Utah is "permitted to collect fossils on public lands, but they are not the property of the museum," Hunt-Foster said. "They hold them for everyone; they belong to us as Americans."

The museum, along with other similar museums, is a repository for such collections. Researchers from around the world are invited to visit and study fossils.

A ‘connection you can’t describe’ » Discoveries don’t only happen in tucked away locations. Fossils found in the field are collected — in many cases, wrapped in a plaster cast still surrounded by dirt and rock called matrix — and sent to the museum.

In the prep lab, volunteers and museum staffers wear lab coats and use dental tools such as drills and picks to clean off the fossilized bones.

"There are discovery aspects in the lab," said Bonnell, who started as a gallery interpreter at the Natural History Museum of Utah, earned her way into the lab and then was invited on field trips. "We slowly take the layers of matrix down and you start seeing little bits of bone. It’s an awakening process. All of a sudden you have this fossil. There is some sort of connection you can’t describe, but it is there."

Finney, who has spent the last nine or so months working on the same ichthyosaur skull, admits the lab work can be tedious, but he also likens it to art.

"I look at it like subtractive sculpture," he said. "They say rock will dictate the sculpture. In the case of fossil prep it is quite literally what the bone will look like when you take the matrix off of it."

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Finney says getting a new plaster cast is like "getting a Christmas present that takes a really long time to open."

Finney and Bonnell both like to take breaks from the lab and walk around the museum. They are constantly rewarded by seeing young people, and those not so young, staring at the bones of ancient animals they helped reconstruct.

Now that she has worked in the lab and the field, Bonnell can explain how the dinosaurs ended up at the museum.

"Some of those kids know more about dinosaurs than I do," Bonnell said. "But they look at me a little differently when I tell them I found some of the items on display."

Visitors will notice little plastic replicas of dinosaurs resting on or near many of the items being worked on in the prep lab. It’s a way of reminding the volunteers about the unique animal they are working to reveal.

It is a custom Finney has incorporated on a shelf at his home.

"Every time I work on a different taxon of different species I buy a plastic toy of that genus," he said. "So far I have seven little plastic dinosaur toys. Hopefully, I will add an eighth sometime soon."


Twitter: @BrettPrettyman

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