One of Utah’s most spectacular paleontological finds — a pack of Utahraptors, and possibly a new dinosaur species — has sat stuck in a sandy tomb for eons. Will 2024 be the year lawmakers finally set it free?
State Geologist Bill Keach traveled to Capitol Hill late last month to make his case for an 18,000-pound hunk of rock uncovered near Moab called the “megablock.” It holds at least a dozen adult and baby specimens of Utahraptor, the charismatic predator that became Utah’s official state dinosaur in 2018. It contains a couple of plant-eating iguanodonts, too, and two skulls that appear to be a raptor species scientists have never seen before.
“I’ve got $20 million [worth] of dinosaur bones,” Keach told an appropriations committee, “and I’ve got zero dollars to prep it.”
The megablock is currently housed at the Utah Core Research Center, a state facility with boxes and boxes of artifacts that bring to mind the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“Yeah, that’s what everybody says,” Keach said on a recent tour.
But instead of hiding top-secret mysteries and paranormal antiquities that melt greedy fascists, the core center’s boxes mostly contain rocks. The collection includes 57 million feet of geological data gathered from drill borings and excavations across the state. It also has thousands of rocks that hold dinosaur bones, sitting unstudied and still jacketed in plaster.
“We have the best dinosaur record in the nation,” said Jim Kirkland, the Utah state paleontologist, “and we’ve only discovered that in the last 30 years.”
The megablock is by far the facility’s megastar. Keach had to convert an old, run-down loading area in 2020 into a tidy, climate-controlled lab to house it.
“It had fiberglass hanging from the ceiling and the door didn’t work,” Keach said. “My wife and I came down a couple days before [the move] and scrubbed the floor.”
Even after around a decade of preparators diligently picking away at it, the boulder still sprawls about 10 feet long and 8 feet deep. But its wonders are coming into view. A tiny jawbone with razor-sharp teeth here, a rib bone there. A perfectly preserved chain of vertebrae from a tail. A sickle-shaped talon — one of the features that made raptors famous. There are at least double the amount of animals in the mass than scientists initially thought, Kirkland said.
“There are skeletons way down the block,” he said.
Because it contains so many raptors, it might be a sign they formed packs or social groups. All the babies could mean the animals cared for their young. The skull Kirkland suspects is a new species has a bigger brain-to-body ratio than any other raptor discovered.
“We have so much to learn from this,” Kirkland said. “But we’ve got to get it out of the block.”
The Legislature approved tens of millions of public dollars to create Utahraptor State Park in 2021 in recognition of its state dinosaur and to protect an important fossil quarry from looting.
“They would probably love to have one of these skeletons [displayed] in their place,” Keach said.
He envisions fossils from the project going to museums across the state for all Utahns to enjoy. It will take around $1 million to $2 million over five years to finish the megablock project, Keach said.
So far, lawmakers aren’t biting.
“They have the most spectacular bunch of fossils just sitting in their garage,” said Scott Madsen, a professional preparator who’s done the bulk of the work on the megablock since it was unearthed. “It’s ludicrous.”
How the megablock came to be
The megablock’s story begins 135 million years ago. A tasty-looking prey species or two became mired in quicksand, according to the running theory. What looked like an easy dinner for a group of hungry raptors instead became a death trap, and all the animals got sucked into the earth.
That calamity was lost to time until a graduate student stumbled across a bone sticking out of a hillside in the early 2000s.
It took scientists about a decade to fully excavate the mass from its quarry in Grand County. They strapped it to a semi-truck in 2013 and hauled it north in search of a lab where they could carefully remove all the bones. But the Utah Natural History Museum, the repository for state-owned fossils, has floors that can’t handle the megablock’s weight.
“My dream was maybe we could work at the State Fairpark,” Kirkland said. “We could make it so people could look in windows from outside and see the work going on.”
The fairpark wasn’t interested, Kirkland said, so the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point offered up its lab. They created an exhibit where patrons could watch professional preparators unearth the fossils in real time, chip after chip.
In 2020, however, the megablock got evicted.
“The new director really wanted a set of bones that kids could crawl on,” Keach said. “This is not that.”
Now it’s in a state facility, but the Department of Natural Resources still can’t afford trained experts to help prepare it.
“The state Legislature doesn’t feel like fiddling with some dinosaurs is particularly a priority,” said Madsen, the megablock’s primary preparator, “given all the other pressing things.”
Part of the problem is fossil work is tedious and highly specialized. Preparators use microscopes and precise tools, similar to the instruments used in dentistry, to gently remove mineralized bone from the surrounding sandstone. DNR’s paleontology crew doesn’t have anyone working full time who can do it.
Madsen instead turned to crowdfunding. It got a surge in national interest after The New York Times ran a story on the effort in 2017. He managed to raise around $250,000 for the megablock project over several years. One donor from the East Coast chipped in $50,000, but the vast majority of contributions were less than $100. Madsen said he spent much of the money on equipment and only paid himself a $35,000 salary.
“It was kind of a weird situation. Here I am starting a GoFundMe page to ask for money to pay me to do something,” Madsen said. “It’s an odd way to fund science.”
Last year, Madsen quit in frustration. Not just because the state couldn’t muster up money for the megablock despite a record-breaking budget, but because he felt the scientific community wasn’t offering adequate interest or support for such a stunning specimen.
“There’s a hierarchy in science of course,” Madsen said. “I’m thought of as a technician. We’re low on the pecking order. Frequently ignored.”
As he’s etched away at the rock, Madsen said, he’s seen evidence to suggest the current theory of how all those raptors ended up in the megablock may not be correct. He’s seen fine layers that could be fossilized algae — something that wouldn’t be found in quicksand.
“I haven’t seen a single tooth mark in any of the bones found so far,” he added, which he’d expect “if this was really a predator trap.”
Kirkland and a number of other paleontological and geological experts (including Madsen) from Utah, Pennsylvania and Virginia published a paper outlining the evidence for the “sand-fluid” trap hypothesis in 2016.
“If you do not agree, publish a rebuttal,” Kirkland said. “That is how science works.”
Madsen, however, is currently in the process of moving to New Mexico and enjoying his retirement.
Keach and Kirkland, too, are on the brink of retirement, leaving the megablock’s fate in further limbo.
“I’m well aware of my age,” Kirkland said. “I’m not going to be the guy who writes this stuff up. It’s going to the next generation of young, hungry paleontologists.”
He disagreed that the wider scientific community lacked interest in the megablock and said he’s currently working with a student on a grant proposal from the National Science Foundation.
“You get turned down a couple times before you get any proposal funded,” Kirkland said, “because there’s not that much funding available to go around” in scientific research.
He’s not optimistic the project will see state money anytime soon either.
“I hope I see this funded while I’m still working,” Kirkland said, “but we’ll see.”
In the meantime, the megablock sits waiting in its quiet climate-controlled enclosure, its secrets still largely encased in stone.
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