Steve Griffin, KSL

Chunk of sandstone that could contain over a dozen Utahraptor skeletons finds a new home

By Kyle Dunphey, KSL | Posted - Feb. 27, 2020 at 6:11 a.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — On Wednesday, a big white tow truck carrying a herd of dinosaurs headed north on I-15.

Don’t worry, the dinosaurs are dead.

The bones are currently preserved inside an 18,000-pound sandstone block discovered in 2001 by a graduate student conducting field work in Arches National Park. On Wednesday the block was relocated from the Thanksgiving Point Museum of Ancient Life to the Utah Geological Survey’s Research Center in Salt Lake City.

There was a brief moment of anxiety as workers used a forklift to hoist the massive block off the back of the tow truck and into a garage. But everything went as planned, and the dinosaur bones landed safely in their new home for the foreseeable future. Eventually, they could end up at a new Utah state park.

A bill that would designate the Utahraptor State Park to protect, preserve and celebrate Dalton Wells Quarry in Grand County, HB322, passed the Utah House of Representatives on Wednesday with a 45-23 vote.

The bill is seeking $10 million to establish the state park, protect the world-class dinosaur fauna, and fund new amenities like state-of-the-art campgrounds, RV parking, restrooms, park areas, trails, roads and more. It now moves on to the Senate for debate.

“I think that it’s a great idea,” said Brian Steed, the director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “And it’s a great way to highlight something truly unique to Utah.”

Steed marveled Wednesday at the enthusiasm of the group receiving the prehistoric remains, saying, “It’s cool to see grown men, educated paleontologists, get so excited about what they could find here.”

“I’ve been doing dinosaurs on the Colorado Plateau region for 45 years, and this is certainly the most important single fossil I’ve ever been a part of,” said James Kirkland, the state paleontologist for the Utah Geological Survey.

Bill Keach, director of the Utah Geological Survey, right, photographs an 18,000-pound sandstone block full of dinosaur bones as it is moved into the Utah Department of Natural Resources’ Utah Core Research Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. Paleontologists say the block contains the best known preserved and most complete collection of Utahraptor skeletons ever found. It’s believed the block contains the remains of at least six, and possibly more, Utahraptors, including one adult, four juveniles and one baby. Moving the block will allow Utah Geological Survey paleontologists, staff and university students to work more closely and frequently with the block to extract and prepare bones and fossils. (Steve Griffin, KSL)

High praise coming from the man who found and named the first Utahraptor in 1993.

Utahraptors likely hunted in packs, using their young as what Kirkland called “cannon fodder” so the larger raptors could move in for the kill. Kirkland thinks the herd came across an herbivore stuck in mud or quicksand when they, too, got caught and died.

“I think there are dozens of skeletons in there,” he said, adding that on the edges of the block alone there are bones that belong to at least six Utahraptors. But it could take paleontologists 10 years to extract every fossil.

In 2014, Kirkland and a crew of Utah Geological Survey employees and volunteers excavated the block from its resting place high on a mesa in the southern Utah desert.

He described the painstaking, decadelong process to unearth the block, with paleontologists preserving each section they uncovered in a thick plaster coat. Eventually they uncovered enough of the block to mount a large wooden frame with guardrails to its bottom.

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With the guardrails acting as skis, an excavation crew then used heavy machinery to slowly lower the block off the mesa.

“It was a long hike, it was really steep and a lot of people didn’t even like being up there,” Kirkland recalled.

For now, any fossils recovered from the block will be cared for by the Utah Museum of Natural History. But most of the people at the Research Center on Wednesday want to see the bones as the main feature at the prospective Utahraptor State Park.

“I sure hope I’ll be retired before it goes anywhere,” said Kirkland, who’s approaching 70. “But I’m hoping that the next time it’s moved it would be to go to the Utahraptor State Park.”

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