Thursday , December 07, 2017 - 5:00 AM
James Kirkland, the state paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey, goes through the bones of a Mierasaurus on Nov. 21, 2017, at his lab in Salt Lake City. The fossils were recently found in Southern Utah and belong to a species of dinosaur that was previously thought to only live in what is now Europe.
If you want to study dinosaurs, Utah is the place to be.
Reporters Leia Larsen and Benjamin Zack sat down with James Kirkland, the state paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey, to find out what Utah looked like 100 million years ago and learn about the discovery boom happening right now.
They also head to Ogden’s George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park to meet with a volunteer who is spending his retirement excavating fossils and assisting with new discoveries.
Story continues below photo gallery.
“Out Standing in a Field” is the Standard-Examiner’s podcast about science and environment. Episodes are available wherever you find your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Play, SoundCloud, Stitcher and TuneIn.
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The transcript below includes a portion of the podcast. Listen to the whole thing
Larsen: A week or so ago, we got to meet Larry in his favorite place.
Robertson: My name is Larry Robertson and I’m a fossil preparer.
Zack: Larry volunteers at the George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park in Ogden, in the fossil lab.
Robertson: One of the great things about working here is the window opens up and you get to talk to the kids.
Dinosaurs are a great gateway into the sciences for the kids because we all went through that dinosaur phase. Even I did as a kid, which I why I’m doing this now.
Zack: Hanging out with Larry, you start to realize how much dinosaurs capture the imagination, whether you’re old, young or somewhere in between.
Larsen: This is the Outstanding in a Field podcast, our science and environment podcast we do for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah.
Zack: This episode we’re diving into some old fields and taking a look at some dinosaurs.
Larsen: You might not realize it, but we’re in a golden age of dinosaur discovery right now and it’s all because of Utah and its unique geology.
Zack: Larry has volunteered at the Ogden Dinosaur Park for around a decade. He helps them find and prepare fossils.
Larsen: That’s part of what’s so cool about Utah’s dinosaur resources. Any of us can actually get hands-on experience with them. You don’t necessarily need a degree in paleontology or geology.
Zack: You can be like Larry, who worked in facilities management, then volunteered in his spare time at the museum.
Larsen: When we visited, he was working on ancient reptile he helped find down at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.
Robertson: He’s called an aetosaur, a member of the crocodile family. It’s from a place called the ghost ranch in New Mexico. They find these particular animals all over the world, it’s nothing new, but most people don’t know that right before the dinosaurs there was a another extinction event that happened. Unlike the dinosaurs, they don’t have a clue what went on
Zack: Most of the fossils we work on here in Utah are from Utah, but sometimes our paleontologists and volunteers go other places, too.
Robertson: We’re a satellite lab of the Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City, and the head paleontologist down there, the aetosaur is the animal they did their grad work on years ago.
Larsen: Volunteers like Larry separate fossilized animals from the rock matrix around them, bit by bit. A lot of times they’re just using fine tools like what you might see at the dentist.
Zack: It’s tedious work, as you can imagine. Larry has spent two years just working on those fossils they found in New Mexico and there’s still plenty left to pull out.
Larsen: But you can tell fossils are a passion for Larry.
Robertson: We’ll actually nickname them, give them names.
When I originally started this project, I wondered if he had lots of friends, did he have lots of buddies?
What he had for breakfast, did they have a good meal? Did he have lots of friends? Did he have lots of aetosaurs running around?
You wonder what is life and his world would have been like.
Larsen: And really, who wouldn’t be passionate about this stuff? Dinosaurs are cool.
Zack: For Larry, it’s also another way for him to leave something behind.
Robertson: I’m never going to become president, I’m not going to cure cancer or the common cold. Other than that piece of granite sticking in the ground saying I was here, this is my way to give back, to help science. Because without us, these paleontologists don’t do this kind of work. They go out in the field and dig things up then sit in front of their computers. It’s up to the volunteers to prep these things out. So without us, they have nothing.
It’s my way to give back to society. I’ve got things in Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City that have my name on them. Now my grand kids or great-great-grandkids can say, “see, that’s what our crazy old grandpa used to do. See that thing? He did that.”
Zack: Larry and the volunteers at the Ogden Dinosaur Park have a whole show-and-tell box. It has fossilized skin, teeth, bones. One bone has claw marks in it from another dinosaur.
Larsen: They’ll let you hold them.
Zack: If you haven’t been there, go check it out.
Zack: OK, we’ve started on the nitty-gritty level with Larry, who’s prepared these fossils for kids and adults to enjoy.
Larsen: Next we wanted to meet the person who’s looking at all these fossils as a whole and trying to understand the bigger picture.
Zack: That multi-million year record of dinosaurs in Utah and around the world.
Kirkland: My name is Dr. Jim Kirkland, I’m the state paleontologist for the Utah Geological Survey.
Zack: Kirkland is the Utah state paleontologist. He’s also the guy who discovered the famous Utahraptor around the time the first Jurassic Park movie was released.
He helped get a whole new generation interested in dinosaurs.
Larsen: Kirkland took us to his fossil lab, which doesn’t look all that different from the lab where Larry works at the Ogden Dinosaur Park.
Zack: Minus the window where curious kids gather.
Larsen: Kirkland’s lab is connected to the Utah core research center at the Department of Natural Resources. It’s a vast warehouse full of boxes and boxes of core samples taken throughout the state.
Kirkland: So when you see a cliff with rock layers going through it, think of these as tubes of the rock layers. People come from all over the world to study these cores. It tells them a lot about oil and gas, tells them a lot about geologic history.
Utah, we have this great dinosaur record, the most complete record in the worldThe layers represent this history. This history is more than just the dinosaurs. It’s the history of our planet.
Doing my job as the state paleontologist to promote the importance of our fossil record is pretty easy. We’re the biggest and the best. It’s really nice. A job like mine, I am supposed to hype it, but when I hype it I’m saying reality. We have an incredible record.
It extends from the origins of multicellular life all the way to the Ice Age extinctions.
I wanted to show you, here’s a thigh bone of our new sauropod, Mierasaurus. It’s not the biggest sauropod in the world. It’s probably the smallest in North America at this point.
Larsen: Mierasaurus is the newest, latest dinosaur discovery in Utah, and one of the things that got us thinking about dinosaurs.
Zack: Sauropods are those big, long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs.
Larsen: Mierasaurs, like Jim saidm was small. What’s the big deal, then, why get excited about it?
Zack: Well, by working with some other paleontologist in Spain and England, Jim was able to figure out the animal was directly related to sauropods in Europe.
Larsen: Meaning the Mierasuarus somehow migrated to North America from Europe, probably via a land bridge.
Zack: In fact, the dinosaur is named after the 18th Century Spanish cartographer Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, the scientific leader of the 1776 Domínguez-Escalante Expedition.
Larsen: That expedition was the first known arrival of Europeans explorers into what is now the state of Utah, where Mierasaurus was discovered. So the name is a poetic, in a way.
Kirkland: They probably had to island hop because at this time, the North Atlantic is ripping open, sea level is rising. That these animals made it across is pretty interesting, because they went extinct in Europe.
It might be these islands and submerging mountain ranges, as the North Atlantic was ripping open at that time, created islands and things, sites for evolutionary innovation, like what we think of with the Galapagos.
You know, if you start dividing populations, bringing them together, then dividing again, that’s what pumps evolutionary innovation. Rare genes can take dominance if they’re being selected for.
Getting those things across, which to scientists is very important doesn’t grasp the public’s attention as much as big, scaly new roaring dinosaurs do.
Larsen: You study extinctions and we’re on the brink of the next big mass extinction. And it’s our fault. Do you ever find yourself thinking about this?
Kirkland: Oh yeah. We’re probably going to lose rhinos in my lifetime. There’s going to be a huge population crash of amphibians. But some things are originating, like the coywolf.
These animals have taken over the East Coast, moving into cities.
We’re actually seeing a species event that we caused, a fairly large animal adapting to us quite well. Life will find a way.
But what do we want this place to be like for our children and their children?
Do we want them to be able to go out and see healthy, diverse ecosystems, or do we want them dominated by rats and pigeons? What do we want as a civilization for the world to be? We can say something about this.