Monday, February 29, 2016

Dinosaur Hunters in the New Mexico Desert

First published in the enchantment magazine by NMRECA.

Fossil Plants
Have you ever imagined traveling back in time and meeting a real, live dinosaur? It’s more possible than you might think – except for the “live” part.

Alan Erickson has been interested in paleontology – the study of fossils – since childhood, because, “I have always enjoyed digging for treasure.” He looked up scientific papers on New Mexico paleontology and visited an area where fossil bones had been found. “After a week of hunting I finally found a vertebra [back bone]. I called the museum and reported the find.” Eventually staffers from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) came out to see it. It was a phytosaur, a pre-dinosaur that looked like a crocodile.

The museum staffers “brought me into the fold,” Alan says, and he began joining official museum digs. “I enjoy the exposure to new knowledge and places, and the comradery. Each dig is like a whole semester of school packed into a couple of days, but much better.”

On one museum dig, “I spotted a hillside and I just knew I’d find something there. I walked straight to the hill and I saw bones poking out of it.” The bones have not yet been studied in detail but may be a tyrannosaur.

He also continues to hunt on his own. “I love finding bones, but one of the coolest things I’ve found is a piece of sandstone with 10 or 15 different leaves or seeds in different colors. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

For others interested in dinosaur hunting, Alan advises, “It takes a long time to find this stuff. You have to learn how to see them.” If you do find something, “Check the GPS coordinates and call the museum. You’ll have more fun with the museum than without them.”

ammonites at the museum 
Field and Lab

Some volunteers work in the museum as well as in the field, almost turning their hobby into a full-time job. Paul Sealey is a museum research associate, an official but unpaid position. “I was one of the first volunteers here,” he says. “I’ve been collecting fossils for 45 years.”

Paul is best known for his discovery of the “Bisti Beast,” a new species of tyrannosaur. He knew right away he had something special. “There was part of a jaw with a tooth eroding out. Parts of the ribs and legs and femur were exposed too. It turned out to be a partial skeleton.” The skull is now on display at the Smithsonian, while the rest is still in the NMMNHS prep lab. Some of Paul’s other finds are on display in Albuquerque as well. The science comes first, “But it’s good that they are on display so the public can see it too.”

Paul’s specialty is ammonites, an extinct marine animal related to octopus and squid. “I’ve been all over the state. The most fun is always making a discovery, but that’s just the start. Then you have to curate them.” He cleans the fossils, makes labels, photographs them, and catalogs everything. He’s been working on a monograph about ammonites for years. He keeps finding new things, like one known from Texas that had not been found in New Mexico before. “It’s hard to stop.”

Going Pro

Amanda Cantrell took her hobby even farther. “When I met my fiancĂ©e, we started going on hikes and finding fossils. I got obsessed with it.” She volunteered at the museum, worked as an intern, and finally got hired as Geoscience Collections Manager. “I’m a librarian of fossils,” she says. Her fiancĂ© is now the prep lab manager, and they’re both still passionate about fossils.

Amanda warns amateurs not to move or collect anything. It’s illegal to collect fossils of vertebrates (animals with a spine) on public lands. Besides, the find is most valuable if the scientists have a chance to study it in place. “Once you pick up a fossil, you take it out of context. It’s important if someone finds a [vertebrate] fossil, don’t touch it,” Amanda says. “Give us a GPS coordinate and call us or send a picture.” It is legal to collect certain fossils, but know the laws and “When in doubt, take pictures and GPS, and ask. There is a legal way to collect, and that’s through us.”

Amanda encourages interested people to join the New Mexico Friends of Paleontology. The museum hosts field trips 2 to 4 times a year, led by a professional paleontologist. Volunteers often find exciting fossils, from giant plants to dinosaur bones. “It’s often the only way they can find vertebrate fossils and touch them,” Amanda says.

On a Dig, photo by Alan Erickson 
A Cool Contribution

Denise Elvrum has been on several museum digs. “I have been interested in paleontology since I was a little girl. When the opportunity came up to go on real digs, I jumped at it. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

On one dig, they found an aetosaur, a relative of the crocodile. “I was off scouting with a senior volunteer and we noticed a group of what looked like white rocks in a pattern in the dirt of a small arroyo. After testing it and deciding that it was in fact bone, we started very carefully removing dirt around the pieces. We keep digging, using small scoops and dental picks, and found a right hind-quarter of the critter. At that point our hearts were jumping around! We got the head paleontologist to come look at it and he was super excited; it was the best one of these things he’d ever seen, too.” 

The most complete aetosaur skeleton ever found anywhere, it is now on display at the museum. “I felt that by helping to uncover this creature, I was contributing something to paleontology in New Mexico and maybe to the greater world. It makes you feel special. I’ve gone to visit ‘my’ dino, and taken my picture with it. It’s really, really neat!”

Jurassic Park may be a fantasy, but dinosaur lovers can meet these beasts in the wild – with a little help from museum friends.

For More Information

The Bureau of Land Management has guidelines for collecting on public land. Vertebrate fossils, such as dinosaurs, mammals, reptiles, and fishes, may only be collected by trained researchers with a BLM permit. Trace fossils – footprints and coprolites (poop) – are also protected. Common invertebrate fossils, such as plants and wood, may be collected “for personal use in reasonable quantities, but may not be bartered or sold.” For more information, see this page.

Kris Bock with a fossil shell
Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.