U is for Utah

Author’s note: We are down to the last six posts of the alphabet. You may have noticed that they’re going to slide a few days into May, so not technically finishing in A to Z April. Still, let’s finish this alphabetic journey about dinosaurs … we are on the home stretch!

Geology Utah, dinosaurs discovered across the variety of ages.

Normally, I would not be touting tourist information for any particular place, and certainly not gathering or sharing information from a chamber of commerce-y site. But this is about dinosaurs and that site is Utah. Utah is a dinosaur place. So is Wyoming and so is Colorado. And China, Argentina, Mongolia. Those are your international dinosaur hot spots.

(Gosh, I sure would like to go Ulaanbataar and see their dinosaur fossils and Chinggis Khan artifacts. How am I ever going to convince my spouse that would be the next great vacation, when we haven’t even been to Paris or Germany or Prague or Madrid… hmmm… anyway.)

There’s just no getting around it. Utah was prime real estate for capturing fossils from almost all significant ages. It also has the second-most different types of dinosaurs discovered, only behind China.

500 my, trilobites in Utah. Geology Utah.

Billions of years

In the earliest period of critters, trilobites and other strange vertebrates wandered through a sea that covered much of the west. Did they crawl or swim? Probably both. Salt Lake City was almost the western shore of proto-North America, the wacky coast, you might say. Waters eventually receded from the coral and fish, then more water flowed down from the arctic to create an inland Mesozoic sea. The dinosaurs emerged after the world warmed up due to all those volcanoes in Siberia. A plain covered most of the west. Ammonites, a relative of the octopus, took over the shuffling through the shallow waters and swamps. Later, they’d turn into coal. Dinosaurs grew, diversified, sprouted horns, plates, and teeth of all sizes.

Pleistocene remains, Geology Utah.

Eventually, the world cooled a lot more and an Ice Age settled in for another few thousand years. Glaciers flowed through and carved out some of the mountains. Volcanoes, their remnants down in Zion and elsewhere, added to the terrain. Mammoths and other curious mammals walked where the dinosaurs had once ruled, where a tabernacle would eventually be built and Olympic racers would vie for medals.

These giant waters were Lake Bonneville, a mass of salt water that covered much of the state. Eventually, as the ice sheet moved back north, and rivers formed, the last bits of the waters turned into the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats. The GSL is receding more now, due to global warming. That’s a sad change, but Utah has been changing for such a long time. Change will continue.

Wikipedia view of the last formation of the Great Salt Lake.

Scary as F*** Droemosaurs

The raptors didn’t seem that scary to me, at first. As I mentioned a few posts ago, the velociraptors were scary in the Jurassic movies, but that’s because Steven Spielberg liked the name. The real velociraptors were chicken-sized. They were part of a predator group called dromaesaurs. They were small theropods–lizard-hipped–bipedal, the ancestors of the non-avian dinosaurs and then the avian dinosaurs, i.e. the actual chickens. Cousins of Mr. T Rex, much smaller cousins.

In the dromaesaur family, the velos are the little guys with the long tail, way in the front. Deinonychus is in the back. You can spot the upturned claw on his foot. It was Deinonychus that partly launched the dinosaur renaissance (letter “R”) because his size and configuration suggested that he was agile, balanced with his tail, and perhaps warm-blooded. Not a sluggish, tail-dragger as was the view in the early 20th century.

Most of this raptor family are raptors in the way of hawks, eagles, and perhaps condors. They capture smaller creatures, mostly with claws. Not all had teeth. They aren’t giant meat-eaters, and they barely surpass the shoulders of the average human.

But, like the fake velociraptors in the movie, being more human-sized is its own kind of scary. The velos who stalked through the kitchen might be smaller, but they could be just as freaky.

And the biggest among them might be drawn as goofy, with its head crest and duck-like beak. But if it’s done up for great effect, with blood dripping from its fangs, as in one of the many U.S. “dinosaur museums,” it’s a different story. I certainly would call this depiction at Dinosaur Journey Museum “over the top,” what with the black stripe on white around the eyes. On the other hand, only slightly bigger than humans seems a lot scarier. It can look you straight in the eye. And this one knows where the soft pink parts are. The feathers don’t make it any less scary.

In the tales of Sinbad, Sinbad is captured by a creature called a roc, which flies him up to a giant nest to feed to its chicks. If the feathered arms here sprouted wings, this could be a roc. But it was named Utahraptor, and that seems fitting for Utah. Even though this is a Colorado museum, the display plays homage to the great finds in the state with two billion years of fossil finds.

Utahraptor at the Dinosaur Journey in Fruta, CO. Photo by kajmeister.


There is one more “U” to this tale. The paleontologists have to find the bones. There are probably bones underneath where you’re sitting right now. But they’re pretty well buried. The reason that Utah and Colorado &c &c have all these fossil findings is because the bones have emerged. Mary Anning, you’ll recall, lived near some cliffs that had bones sticking out.

The waters receded from Utah for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that the two plates that North America sit on were banging into each other. One won the wrestling match and went up, the other plate went down. The Rockies formed from the plates squishing together. That wrestling match also meant sent parts of the geology sideways.

The story in the quarry of Dinosaur National Park. Photo by kajmeister of National Park information.

Driving around in this middle West, you can see tons of eroded rocks with stripes, reflecting all those levels of geology. You can buy tons of national park maps that name all the stripes. But, also, sometimes the stripes end up sideways. The bones stick out. In the case of the dinosaur quarry in Dinosaur National Park, the paleontologist Earl Douglass saw some of those bones exposed from that long-ago underwater mud where the fossils formed.

Douglass and his team carefully carved out a mid-section of the sandstone. Ultimately, they were able to expose this entire wall of dinosaurs. The wall is full of hundreds of bones, many still joined to show a whole animal, and others tumbled together. Some of the skeletons were pulled out and sent to museums all around the world (yes, including the Carnegie, of course). But many were left to be on display for us.

Quarry Hall in Dinosaur National Park, Utah. Photo by kajmeister.

All those mountains in Utah–the ones they ski down– probably are full of walls, floors, and ceilings of bones. We can’t just dig them all out, of course, but we can know that they are there.

And give respect to Utah for taking such good care of its bones.

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