Digging Dinosaurs at Como Bluff

Digging Dinosaurs at Como Bluff

Follow PaleoJoe on his Dinosaur Dig Adventure in Como Bluff.

A few years ago, I was sitting in front of the TV with my trusty remote, my zapper, channel surfing and by some strange quirk I happened to stop on a channel that looked interesting. Much to my amazement I saw Dr. Robert T. Bakker describing Wyoming Dinosaur Adventures by a group, the Wyoming Dinosaur International Society. They have since disbanded somewhat and are now doing digs in Wyoming through Casper college in Wyoming. They led paleontological digs to the world famous Como Bluff.

Today Como Bluff is closed to collecting but the group still heads out into the badlands to dig dinosaurs.

I was lost in a fog for the next several hours as I found their website and read each page. It seemed that Dr. Bakker and a dedicated group of dinosaur hunters had been leading excursions into the Wyoming prairie. They found and discovered dinosaur remains for use study and display in Wyoming. Apparently the bones dug in Wyoming over the past century have migrated to museums all over the world, leaving virtually nothing in Wyoming for people to enjoy – after all – the state fossil is a Triceratops.

Dinosaur aficionados all know the story of Como Bluff. Dinosaur remains were discovered when the Union Pacific railroad was cutting a path through the Como Bluff on its way to the west. This is also the location where the famous dinosaur wars between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope took place. Each man had a crew there digging dinosaurs and bringing them back east. The rival crews even fired bullets at each other across the prairie. At times the rivalry was so intense that the crews dynamited their own quarries before they left in order to deny the bones to the rival crew. And now I too could dig in the same rich locations as Cope and Marsh, a weeklong dig in Dinosaur Mecca.

Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity to dig with Dr. Bakker, a maverick in the field of Paleontology. I sent away my application and began making plane reservations. The dig – of course – had a modest fee which included breakfast, lunch and dinner, a room at a local hotel in Medicine Bow, transport to and from the dig site and all the tools and equipment you would need while there. The most educational aspect of the digs were the daily morning discussions with Dr. Bakker as he described the previous days activities and finds and challenged the participants to think and reason out answers to his questions of what we found, why and what could have happened millions of years ago. And yes, one of the best parts was to be able to dig beside Dr. Bakker and his crew. As you read about Como Bluff in books, the scientific research that has been done there will astonish you. While there you are part of a crew that is writing the history of the Jurassic of Como Bluff. You’ll learn how the dinosaurs lived, how they died and the evidence of their lives in that area. You can see the victims and perpetrators of death during the Jurassic.

Now as I leave my cushy world behind, follow me deep into the Wyoming prairie, the Carlin Ranch and Como Bluff.
I was not lucky enough to live within driving distance, so I flew into Denver and then aboard a regional airline company, Great Lakes Airlines for a short 35 minute hop to Laramie, Wyoming. The first thing that struck me was the lack of vegetation – trees to be specific. The view of the rolling hills and plains was wonderful. Two staff members of the Wyoming Dinosaur International Society (WDIS) met me at the airport. Mel – short for Melanie and Nancy – both paleontologists for the WDIS were there to make sure we were well taken care of. Mel, the only person yet to find a complete Apatosaurus skull in Como and Nancy, a fossil preparator at the Tate Museum in Casper, Wyoming, were both very knowledgeable and started our education right away. As we left the tiny airport terminal building, I was escorted to a Chevy Suburban affectionately called “Conan”.

Conan, a blue and white 4 wheel drive vehicle, was dusty, full of gear and “stuff”, had a cracked spider webbed windshield, dents, dust and rust – all in keeping with the character of a dinosaur hunting vehicle. Alas, I was not there yet. We drove for just over 1 hour along Wyoming highway 287 through tiny quaint, almost ghost towns. As we neared the town where we would be staying, we passed the Carlin Ranch – the sight of many great discoveries. The ranch encompasses the Como Bluff. Closer to town lies the famous “Bone Cabin”. This is a structure in which the outside walls are built entirely of dinosaur bones. Finally, we arrived in historic Medicine Bow, the setting for the Owen Whistler book, “The Virginian” This book made famous the western phrase, “When you call me that ….smile” Also do you remember that The Virginian was made into a TV show staring Lee J. Cobb and Doug McClure – now I’m dating myself.

A view of the Virginian Hotel in days gone by. It hasn’t changed. Note the horses.

We passed the Virginian Hotel, the old train depot and the little “Dip” (Diplodocus) Bar And Grill and on to the Trampas Lodge, my home away from home.

The first afternoon and evening was more or less an acclimation period for me. Medicine Bow is just over 7,000 feet above sea level. That evening I went to the Virginian – as I would every night at 7 pm for dinner. I introduced myself to the other “diggers”. The digging crew was from all over the United States. I was from Michigan, there was a couple from New York, someone from Nebraska, a couple from Arkansas (the husband brought his wife for their anniversary – how sweet) and so on. I had a chance to meet the entire staff.

The tension could have been cut with a knife when someone finally asked, “When is Dr. Bakker coming?” The answer from the staff was “We don’t know, maybe tonight, maybe in the morning – we never know with Dr. Bob”. About 15 minutes into dinner, a tall man – I’m short – wearing a terribly beaten wide brimmed hat, long beard and long hair drawn back in a ponytail entered the room: Dr. Bob. The air was electric. College students, couples and of course – me, were all excited just to see him walk in. This experience is going to be real ! We ate dinner in the wonderful western Victorian dining room listening to stories from Dr. Bakker and his staff, morning could not come soon enough.

The First Day

Coming from Michigan and being somewhat excited about our first dig day, I was up at 5am: (7am Michigan time). I opened my room door at the Tampas Hotel – the rooms were all on the ground level and doors opened directly outside – to let some clean fresh Wyoming air into my room. I walked out to the parking lot toward the road to enjoy the quiet calm morning air and watch the sun rise and guess who was already out there – yup, you guessed it – Dr. Bakker. Like a star struck kid I ran back to my room, grabbed my copy of the Dinosaur Heresies and went out to get Dr. Bakker to sign it. After that I began to mumble a conversation with him. Shyness melted away quickly as I realized that Dr. Bakker was a very down to earth individual who happened to have a degree from Harvard one from Yale and who also loved dinosaurs. We spoke about the morning stillness and the philosophies of museums and educating the public. I began to feel comfortable here. This was going to be a great adventure. We stood there drinking coffee and enjoyed the morning. I excused myself after a while and went back to my room to get my gear and walk the two blocks to the now defunct Medicine Bow Elementary school which was going to be our base of operations. At the school was Arnold, another staff member from the dig team. He was a petroleum geologist who “saw the light”. Also he could easily make it big as an impressionist opening in Vegas. He had so many voices in his repertoire that he kept us more than slightly amused throughout the dig. Many times I couldn’t see the bones I was digging because I was laughing so hard my eyes welled up with tears. We needed to have come comic relief on those hot summer days, all we had to do was listen to Ahh nold.

The digsite and a plastered vertebra.

The school, built in 1926 has since been closed. The facilities were in great shape and the WDIS crew was using part of it for a briefing and classroom facility. The cafeteria was set up and we ate breakfast there and packed our lunches for the trip to the field every day. There was also a mini prep lab there in one of the classrooms so we could actually prep specimens that came out of the field. Dr. Bob would come in and mingle with everyone while eating breakfast. After eating, Dr. Bob would move to the chart boards and begin his morning briefing sessions and class.

Following the class we would make our lunches, pack them in coolers, collect up our tools and get ready to pile into vehicles. We would get into the vehicles – some in Dr. Bob’s Toyota 4x4, some in Conan and some in various other vehicles for the trip to the dig site. The rest of the days would begin like this.

Turning off the main road into the Carlin Ranch we saw prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, golden eagles, hawks, herds of cattle, sagebrush, and cactus – in short, lots of flora and fauna. We actually passed the original 1880’s dig site of O.C. Marsh on our way to the dig sites. We traveled up a dirt road about 7 miles until we finally turned on to a two track through the prairie – literally two tracks made by vehicle tires. Through a locked gate we went. The next several miles were kidney crushing and bladder busting. We went on to the location that would be our playground for the next 5 days. Our “playground” was a valley about 10 miles long and about 2 miles wide. Our first stop was the Morton Quarry. This location in the Morrison formation contains a rich fossil bed with many skeletons in various stages of excavation. Just down the hill, in another horizon, was the Laughton Quarry. A juvenile Allosaurus was located there and I began working on it with several others while another group continued to excavate a sauropod which was in the process of being plaster jacketed. Many groups had been there before us, but there was still a great deal of digging to be done. Every year more and more bones were being exposed by natural erosion. Dr. Bakker began to circulate around the dig site recounting tales of what the ancient Jurassic could have been like. He would periodically get down next to us and examine our work. He would also take out some of his tools and join in. After some time he would drift away disappearing over a ridge and go on a “walkabout”, a prospecting trip for more bones. According to staff there are about 200 documented sites and only about 40 are being actively visited and worked. We ate lunch in the field, took a brief siesta and back to it. I took it a bit easy the first day, but to no avail. After lunch the altitude and hot beating sun got to me a bit and I took a 45 minute break in the meager shade next to “Conan”. We were constantly putting water on our heads and water on our neckerchiefs to help combat the heat, altitude and fatigue.

When I recovered a bit I went back to the Allosaurus site. After a while Dr. B reappeared and began to visit each site again. About 7 feet away from me, just above the horizon I was working Dr. Bob noticed a small sliver of bone exposed on the hill. “Ahh” he exclaimed, “Bone”, then louder “Ah look here” and “Ahh” and “Ahhhh”. He called me over with my tools and we began to dig. All of a sudden we found a caudal vertebra from a Camptosaurus. He told me to keep at it and I found another and another. We had just located another site on a different horizon, a totally new event. That is about how it went all week long. With so much to do, so many bones and so little time, it was very hard to tear away from what I was doing to even get a drink of water. We were often cautioned, instructed and even ordered to drink lots of water to prevent heat stroke. We were also cautioned to work slowly, especially flatlanders like me from Michigan. Again to no avail, I was beat by 5pm. My stomach hurt, head hurt, my body hurt from all the digging and stooping. It didn’t matter. I had worked on excavating an Allosaurus all morning and a new find, a Camptosaurus all afternoon. We departed the dig site around 5 and went back for dinner. Invitations to come to the prep lab to do some bone prep were accepted by some, but most went to their rooms, a cold shower and sleep. Day one was pretty good.

Claw Quarry and the Road of Death day 2 and 3

After the usual breakfast and small talk, Dr. Bakker explained what we had witnessed the day before. In his exceptional educational style, he questioned and queried us in an attempt to get us to think about the circumstances of the death of these beasts and their deposition. He explained the clues we saw – or didn’t see. Were there broken teeth around the bones we found? Was the skeleton a partial? How were the bones laid out? All of these questions helped us understand that day in the Jurassic. Dr. Bob used the chart boards to draw – very well I might add – a cross section of where we had been. Finding broken theropod, meat eating dinosaurs, would be a very important clue. If you find broken teeth, it was an active feeding site. Teeth of large carnivorous dinosaurs are broken off during the feeding process – no knife and fork to cut the meat. A lack of teeth at the excavation can show deposition was made swiftly or the carcass was transported by water to the site of deposition. If the teeth were present, someone had a really good picnic.

The road of death. This rutted, washout of a dirt roadway is affectionately called the Road of Death. This was a “small” hill, at about a 45 degree angle and about 400 feet long. It was full of ruts and washouts. Sitting on the passenger side of Dr. Bob’s Toyota, looking to my right, there was only a door between the valley floor and me. Dr. Bakker has been down this road many times before and anyway….the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, isn’t it?

Tarps put up for protection from the sun and heat.

We got to Claw Quarry and everyone piled out, thankful that the vehicle stayed on its wheels and made it down safely. Claw is an exposure on the side of a hill. The exposure is light gray in color and very easy to dig. The fossils here are quite small but very abundant. Before we started the short climb to the dig site about 30 feet above us, Dr. Bob told us to walk slowly and look down. The ground we would be walking up was very fossil rich. Fossils were literally falling out of the side of the hill and sliding down as rain washed the side of the hill. He wanted us to find Jurassic crocodile teeth. And guess what…croc teeth we found. As we walked up the hill people exclaimed, “Got one”, “Got one here too”, “Is this one?”, on and on. I found three on my walk up as well as a large piece of giant turtle shell. We also found lungfish teeth, croc scutes – dermal plates and turtle scutes. They were a little small, but unmistakable. Was this a feeding area??? We would find out soon.

We each took up a location along the ridge and began digging in our own little area. It was packed with fossils. We actually stayed for two days so my descriptions will cover both days. We found nearly 100 broken small (baby) croc teeth. Remember, teeth of dinosaurs as well as crocodiles sometimes break off during feeding. Dinosaurs and crocodiles replenish their teeth during life. It was very rare at this site to find a complete croc tooth, one that was dislodged post mortum when the ligaments loosened, jaws decayed and teeth dropped out. We found turtle scutes in great abundance, but they were small. One of the dig team found a large croc tooth, but most of the ones we found were about ¼ inch in length – baby crocs. Another member of the team found part of a raptor claw. Other members of the team found bones of several small creatures. One lady was walking around the ridge to go to the “ladies room” – just over the next ridge ad as she looked down she saw a wonderful Ceratosaurus tooth. One other team member found a wonderful mammal leg bone. It was very small but unmistakable. It had three trocanters for muscle attachments. Another digger found a giant Lungfish tooth. What a wonderful site. I found a great cache of bones and scutes. As I was digging I exposed a limb bone with what appeared to be another associated limb bone. As all paleontologists know, one begins to excavate above and around the fossil you want to keep, to make sure there are no other bones associated or hidden under the first. Well, as I began to excavate around the bone I found a turtle scute, a turtle scute a large croc scute, and more on top of others not to mention croc teeth. I took compass readings of the teeth to help determine the direction of the water in which these fossils were deposited. In short, this was a very fine location where a small eddy may have formed around the bone allowing the smaller pieces to fall in behind it as they tumbled down stream and came to rest and fossilized in this location. It took me two full days to excavate this site and remove all the bones and scutes.

During the first day at Claw Quarry, after digging for many hours, I decided to do a walkabout myself. I walked around the “Men’s Room” side of the cliff and kept going for a while. I sat down on a large rock in the shade of a scraggly conifer tree overlooking the valley we had been cris-crossing for several days. Not a sound could be heard but the blowing wind and an Eagle screeching. After about 10 minutes a Golden Eagle came by and sat in an old dead tree not 20 yards from me. What a grand and magnificent creature. We sat looking at each other for a while, what a serene and beautiful place we were in.

Again this was a two day excursion. On our way back the first day, we took a short cut and drove down by a river which a week before was six feet or so higher than today. Not to miss an educational opportunity we stopped in the valley next to the now slow moving shallow river and got out. Immediately we began to find bones. Not dinosaur bones, but buffalo and other creatures. These were anywhere from 200 years old to 2000 years old. But what did they tell us? Catastrophic events sometimes deposit bones in certain areas. Bones can be deposited and re-deposited prior to fossilization. The river bank had eroded severely in several areas and even trees were uprooted and fell into the water. Once could see bones weathering out higher in the now eroding bank.

After our little side trip we got back into the vehicles and drove toward the river crossing. We made it across with no problem in Dr. Bob’s tough, trusty, Toyota 4x4, but Mike who was driving behind us, didn’t quite make it. Well, he tried a couple of times to ford the river but to no avail. He would back up and take a run at it but he couldn’t get past the middle of the river. Soooo after about 45 minutes of trying we unloaded Dr. Bob’s Toyota, jammed as many people in it as we could and went back to town to get a rope and come back. By the time Dr. Bakker returned, Mike had gotten the jeep out and was on the far bank. Needless to say he took the long way home.

That night as we were going to the Virginian for dinner, there was a short downburst of rain. As we walked over to the hotel, I first saw one rainbow and then a second right next to it. I had never seen a rainbow so vivid, so beautiful and complete. It went from ground to ground. We don’t have a lot of wide open spaces in Michigan with no trees and buildings in order to see a ground to ground rainbow. Now to see two that was spectacular. I ran into the hotel to tell the others and they all ran out but guess what ????? there weren’t two rainbows, there were now three concentric rainbows. It was a spectacular ending to a spectacular day.

Trackways, Nail Quarry and Squid Butt Hill. Day 4 and Day 5

We started out again in the morning as we had done every day. Today we were breaking into two groups. One was going to Nail Quarry and I went with the other to the Dinosaur Trackway. Day 5 we would switch.

Well, the dinosaur trackway was very exciting. We could see large sauropod tracks and also there was a rarity, a Pterodactyl track. I know, I know, a Pterodactyl was a flying creature but they had to land sometime. This track was of the Pterodactyl knuckle. When they “walked” on the ground they folded up their wings and walked on their knuckles.
Another very exciting part of the trackway was the sauropod trackway named “Steve”. Well, I asked how do you know this was a male dinosaur that made the track. Dr. Bob was very eager to explain. It was quite clear that the dinosaur walked into a very muddy area. He got stuck and decided to back up. We could clearly see how he moved his front legs back in order to back out of the mud. As he did so his rear end lowered down closer to the ground. As this happened there was an impression in the mud, ahh between the back legs of the dinosaur trackway, that ahh seemed to be ahhh the reason the dinosaur trackway was called Steve.

The trackway was not completely uncovered and I decided to spend some time uncovering it. This meant removing a great deal of dirt overburden. Another digger, Ryan, joined me and after several hours we had removed about 3 cubic yards of overburden. We got to the track layer and we did uncover more sauropod tracks. We left the dirt in the tracks in part to protect them from damage. Mike, another digger from New York, had been there several years ago when they first found the trackway stayed there for several more days to continue work. He stayed and mapped the site for further study. They did actually mold and cast the tracks for further study at the museum.

Dr. Bakker standing in the footprint left by Steve.

After many, many hours of digging tracks out of the overburden, Dr. Bakker decided to take a bunch of us over the hill through another river to go looking for “Squid Butts”.

I had never heard that term before, but immediately knew what he was talking about. I always called them belemnites, I never called them squid butts but how perfect. It is the internal structure of the ancient squid that gives it the bullet shape. It is the only part that can normally fossilize. What a great way to capture the attention of school children – but tat is another story.

We walked around along a 15 foot high cliff over a series of washouts and then, there they were. Literally “Ka-jillions” of squid butts. Ka-jillion, humorously I believe it is a word that means a whole lot of something. You couldn’t help but see Belemnites everywhere. I had a one gallon Ziplock™ bag and needless to say I filled it up. We were allowed to keep these if we wanted. I’ll use these as give away prizes when I teach kids about fossils. But you should have seen the airport security agents when they X-rayed my carry on and saw all those things that looked like bullets. “No really sir. I am a paleontologist. Yes sir, really, I dug these up at Como Bluff, No sir you can’t put them in a gun and fire them, they are made of stone, sir.!!!” Anyway I’ve got my squid butts from the Jurassic.

On the way back as little reward for working so hard this week, Dr. Bob stopped the Toyota in the middle of the river and we got to splash around a while before we went back to work.

The next day we dropped off some people at the track way, but most of us went to Nail Quarry. Nail got its name due to the fact that they originally found a nail; you know hammer and nail – in the quarry. This location was reportedly to have been one of the locations Barnum Brown excavated earlier in the century. This was the richest dinosaur bone bed in the Como Bluff area we had yet seen.

When we got there many of the exposed bones were already jacketed with foil, burlap and plaster. Many had already been removed and were awaiting shipment, some still had yet to be rolled, and some bones were ready to be jacketed. I worked in an area where there was a large vertebra. Needless to say as I dug, I found more and more bones. This final day was cut short by thunderstorms. We packed up early – about 3 pm, just before the storm let loose. Dr. Bakker stayed a bit longer with a crew that had started to jacket a few beautifully preserved vertebrae.

Plastered Bones ready to be loaded.

The days were long and hot. We put up tarps to help protect us from the harsh sun. We drank gallons of water, we used tubes of sunscreen and insect repellant. But we found bones, lots of bones from the Jurassic. Dinosaurs that once roamed this area we now call Como Bluff, Wyoming. I can see why this location as been one of the most collected since the 1800’s. I can see why dinosaur hunters from allover the world descend upon this valley barely 10 miles long and 2-3 miles wide we call Como Bluff. What a rich flora and fauna this once was. What a large variety of dinosaur species, what great evidence of these magnificent beasts. What great stories these long buried bones told us.

If you have the opportunity and a desire, search the web and contact a group offering a dinosaur dig opportunity. These can become the trips of a lifetime. For me, growing up in New York and spending most of my life in areas only in marine invertebrate fossils can be found, this was an experience to remember. Anyone can participate in these digs. The groups will train you and provide you with the tools you will need to have a great dinosaur collecting experience. Remember though, the fossils you find will remain with the group that hosts the dig. Most dinosaur remains must remain with a museum or university in perpetuity. They are scientifically significant and must be studied by professionals.