SALT LAKE CITY — A 656-page book chronicling the paleontological discoveries evidenced so far at Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been published, even as new discoveries continue to unfold on a near daily basis.
"I am here to emphasize that we are just getting started at the Grand Staircase," said Alan Titus, the monument's paleontologist. "We have a great big sandbox to play in."
Titus and Mark Loewen are editors of "At the Top of the Grand Staircase: The Late Cretaceous of Southern Utah," recently published by Indiana University Press and the first comprehensive publication documenting the terrestrial record of what was known as of 2009 at the monument.
Titus is adjunct curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and Loewen is an adjunct assistant professor in the University of Utah's Department of Geology and Geophysics and a research associate at the museum.
Both worked painstakingly to put together the paleontological history of the terrain that spans the monument's nearly 2 million acres, which Titus describes in the book as "one of the truly last frontiers in North American geology and paleontology."
The book grew out of a 2009 conference, Titus said, with a desire to put the research compiled so far into one collection.
"Basically what we wanted to do is create an atlas of what we knew at the time," he said.
It's a breathtaking tome of exacting details that will be relished by academia, but the two warn it is just a beginning, a sliver of what exists in the geological record at the monument.
"I am here to emphasize that we are just getting started at the Grand Staircase. ... We have a great big sandbox to play in."
"Nobody knows anything about this package of rocks in southern Utah," Loewen said. "We know a lot about the northern areas of Canada and Montana, but this is our first time to really put together something that is a comprehensive reference on what we know three years ago."
The book's 28 chapters drawing on work from more than 40 authors chronicles the research that has taken place at the monument and what it reveals, from turtles in the Kaiparowits Formation, to anklyosaurian dinosaurs in the Grand Staircase region and salamanders and sharks — all from the late Cretaceous.
For most of that period, a shallow sea subdivided North America into two land masses — the western continent of Laramidia that includes Utah and Mexico — and the eastern continent of Appalachia.
Previously, the bulk of the fossil record of Laramidia came from its northern areas of Montana and Canada.
Most of the geological research done in that portion of Utah and the southwest was coal geology, but Titus said the political act in 1996 creating the monument changed that, becoming the catalyst for a dramatic increase in research on the region's macroinvertebrate paleontology.
In 2000, when the monument plan was approved, Utah's natural history museum teamed up with the University of Utah and began conducting field surveys at the monument in an agreement in which the Bureau of Land Management in Utah rendered financial assistance.
The effort soon spiraled into a large-scale research undertaking called the Kaiparowits Basin Project, tapping the expertise of monument staff, the Utah Geological Survey, museums in Denver and Claremont, Calif., as well as Weber State University and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
In the ensuing decade, the project has surveyed 43,000 acres in two key formations. The research has unveiled more than 2,000 new vertebrate fossil sites and provided new radiometric dates, according to the book.
Donald DeBlieux, who is now the state's assistant paleontologist who works with the Utah Geological Survey, said it is the monument in part that brought him to Utah to work as a geologist digging into the new discoveries.
"It's been a special place for me because of it being so remote," said DeBlieux, one of the researchers whose work is in the book. "There is really nothing better than going to look for fossils in a place where no one has looked closely before. It is exciting to know that you are in a place that has a lot of potential."
The discoveries at the staircase have been notable on a global scale.
Overall, there have been nine new named dinosaurs, including last week's announcement of a previously unknown dinosaur now called Lythronax argestes — and such a complete find that Titus described it as rare and improbable. The animal was a tyrannosaur that lived 80 million years ago and a smaller, more slightly built version of his descendent, the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex.
At a news conference at the Museum of Natural History last week, Titus said the announcement of the new tyrannosaur is simply an end point in the beginning of more exciting journeys to come.
"Nobody knows anything about this package of rocks in southern Utah. We know a lot about the northern areas of Canada and Montana, but this is our first time to really put together something that is a comprehensive reference on what we know three years ago."
Of the nearly 2 million acres within the boundaries of the monument, Titus explained only 10 percent of it has been probed for fossil records.
"The monument is a resource being recognized as world class. It deserves it, and it demands it," he said.
Titus said there are another 11 "unnamed" new dinosaurs in the pipeline, but they won't be officially classified as "new" until all the supporting research and documentation is done.
Over the years, he's been keeping track of the incredible finds.
"I have been keeping a tally of everything that we have found, and that number (of new dinosaurs) actually tops 20," Titus said. "If you go beyond that, there's new species of turtles, crocodiles, and 30 to 40 species of new mammals. If you added up everything, it's been between 50 and 100 new animals."
What is exciting about the Staircase and its discoveries, he said, is the story that it tells about the amazing diversity that existed in the area.
"Southern Utah is turning out to be the equivalent of our Brazilian rainforest in terms of extreme tropical diversity," Titus said.
The book, he added, helps bring it all together for the scientific community.
"Basically this book represents a milestone of sorts, that OK, the Kaiparowits has arrived," Titus said. "We now have a body of knowledge synthesized about the Kaiparowits that elevates it to the status of some of the other more famous basins that have been studied for a 100 years."
The book is available at Indiana University Press or Amazon. A portion of the proceeds supports additional paleontological research at the monument.
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