Dinosaurs in Our Past

Dinosaurs in our past: Dinosaur Footprint Cast, The Prehistoric Museum, USU Eastern Campus, Price, UT Courtesy Mary Heers, Photographer
Dinosaur Footprint Cast
The Prehistoric Museum,
USU Eastern Campus, Price, UT
Courtesy Mary Heers, Photographer

Dinosaur Footprint Display, The Prehistoric Museum, USU Eastern Campus, Price, UT  Courtesy Mary Heers, Photographer Dinosaur Footprint Display
The Prehistoric Museum,
USU Eastern Campus, Price, UT
Courtesy Mary Heers, Photographer

When I saw my first giant dinosaur footprint a the Natural History Museum of Utah, I said it was terrific.

“Dime a dozen, “ said my father-in-law, who was standing next to me. “The ceiling of the coal mine is littered with them.”

My ears perked right up. “Really,?” I said. “Maybe I could get one?”

As a young mining engineer right out of college, my father in law had been hired to run the Sunnyside coal mine about 25 miles outside of Price. He went on to explain that it was impossible to take a footprint out of the mine ceiling with risking bringing the whole roof down on your head. I had to agree it sounded difficult, but that didn’t stop me from sighing and saying, “I sure would like a dinosaur footprint for Christmas. “

In the end, he compromised by arranging a trip into the mine to see the footprints.

So, on a day no one was working in the mine, we climbed into the low riding miner’s car that carried us deep, deep into the heart of the mountain. When we got to the face we stopped and got out. In the dim light of our headlamps I could see we were in a huge cavernous room with massive pillars of coal, seven feet high and almost as wide, holding up the roof. And then I looked up and saw them – three toed footprints pressed down into the ancient mud that had turned into coal millions of years ago. Whole families of dinosaurs had strolled through this prehistoric swamp, leaving big prints, as long as two feet, and small ones, as small as six inches.

I found out later that the preservation of these footprints was a happy accident of sand filling up the prints soon after they were made. Millions of years later, when the decaying swamp plants were compressed into coal, the sand (itself pressed into sandstone,) held the shape of the foot.

A similar lucky mix of sand, water and pressure was needed to preserve dinosaur bones. Not all bones become fossils. So you can imagine the excitement in the scientific community when a fossil bed containing more than 12,000 dinosaur bones were discovered 30 miles south of Price. There were enough bones to qualify as a crime scene. To this day, my favorite spot in the Natural History Museum of Utah is the corner where 4 paleontologists on 4 TV screens square off with their earnest explanations for this massive bone pile-up.

    One says it was a watering hole that dried up so the dinosaurs died.

    “No,” says the second. There was too much water. The site became so muddy that the dinosaurs got stuck in the mud.

    The third offers up the idea that it could have been poison or a lethal germ that got in the water.

    “Oh, no,” says the fourth. The dinosaurs died somewhere else, and floodwaters floated them here.

It’s a mystery still waiting to be solved, and that’s what makes studying Utah’s past so interesting.

This is Mary Heers, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy Mary Heers,
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio upr.org
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Wild About Utah Postings

Sunnyside Coal Mines, UtahRails.net, Last Updated March 8, 2019, https://utahrails.net/utahcoal/utahcoal-sunnyside.php

Prehistoric Museum, USU Eastern Campus, Price, UT, https://eastern.usu.edu/prehistoric-museum/

Natural History Museum of Utah, Rio Tinto Center, University of Utah, https://nhmu.utah.edu/

Utah at the Smithsonian

Utah at the Smithsonian: Click for a larger view of Diplodicus, Courtesy NMNH.si.edu, Michael Brett Surman, Photographer
Diplodicus
Courtesy NMNH.si.edu
Michael Brett Surman, Photographer

Utah at the Smithsonian: Camarasaurus, Camarasaurus lentus (Marsh), Courtesy http://www.nmnh.si.edu/, Michael Brett Surman, PhotographerCamarasaurus
Camarasaurus lentus (Marsh)

Courtesy NMNH.si.edu
Michael Brett Surman, Photographer

Utah at the Smithsonian: Smithsonian Butte, Public Domain, Courtesy National Scenic Byways Online, http://www.byways.org/ and Bureau of Land Management, John Smith, Photographer

Smithsonian Butte
Public Domain, Courtesy
National Scenic Byways Online and Bureau of Land Management.
John Smith, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

You don’t have to be in Utah to appreciate some of its treasures. Examples of Utah natural history can be found in museums around the globe. The last time I was in Washington DC, I explored the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. There turned out to be a whole lot more Utah stuff than I ever imagined.

Many would consider dinosaurs to be our most illustrious museum export. Indeed a 90-foot long Utah diplodocus is the centerpiece of the museum’s Dinosaur Hall.

Not far away is an amazingly intact Camarasaurus from Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. Its fossilized bones remained in position for over 150 million years. So beautifully and naturally preserved, it still rests on part of the sandstone block in which it was found.

Only a tiny fraction of the Museum’s collections are on display. The vast majority of its 126 million specimens are in drawers, vaults, and freezers. These items are meticulously cataloged and preserved and they serve as primary reference materials for researchers around the world. I found many 1000s of cataloged items for Utah plants, mammals and birds. Less abundant, there are still 100s of records representing specimens of our amphibians, reptiles and fish.

If you poke around in the collections databases you are sure to find something of interest. I found records of some 300 Utah plant specimens collected by Lester Frank Ward, a botanist who worked for John Wesley Powell on his western expeditions. Powell also contributed to the Smithsonian’s collection of flora and fauna. I found 8 bison skulls and one grass species, but there is probably more.

There is the skull and partial skeleton of a grizzly killed in Logan Canyon. Not Old Ephraim–his skull is here in Utah–but another one killed the year before.

In 1950, a meteorite struck a driveway just a few feet from a Box Elder County woman. A few years later, the meteorite was donated to the Smithsonian. But not before it was enhanced by local schoolchildren using crayons of various colors.

The museum’s mineral collection contains 1000s of Utah specimen, some with very strange names : I found Beaverite, Rabbitite Englishite, Coffinite, Psuedowavellite, Cristobalite, Alunite, Apatite and even Bieberite. As in Justin, I guess.

Anyway, you get the idea. The Smithsonian collections form the largest, most comprehensive natural history collection in the world. And Utah is a prime contributor of both collection items and the stories behind them.

By the way, not only are Utah things in the Smithsonian, but there are also Smithsonian things in Utah.

For example, the Henry Mountains in south central Utah were named after the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Joseph Henry.

Another example is Smithsonite–or zinc carbonate–which was first identified by James Smithson in 1802. The very same Smithson left his fortune to the United States government, directing that it be used to create the Smithsonian Institution. The mineral Smithsonite has been found in Tooele and Washington Counties.

Lastly, there’s Smithsonian Butte. When the Powell Expedition traveled through the Zion area, geologist Edward Dutton named the Butte after the expedition’s most generous sponsor. Smithsonian Butte Road is a designated national backcountry byway, crossing over the Vermilion cliffs between Utah 9 and Utah 59.

For pictures, sources and links, go to www.Wildaboututah.org

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Images: Information and photos provided with the permission of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 10th and Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20560-0193. (http://www.nmnh.si.edu/)
Smithsonian Butte, Public Domain, Courtesy National Scenic Byways Online and Bureau of Land Management., John Smith, Photographer
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading


Panoramic Virtual Tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Navigate or go directly to the Dinosaur Hall to see the diplodocus from Utah. (Fossils: Dinosaur 2)
http://www.mnh.si.edu/panoramas/index.html

Dinosaur page of the NMNH.http://paleobiology.si.edu/dinosaurs/index.html

Research and Collections of the Smithsonian NMNH.
http://www.mnh.si.edu/rc/

Access to Smithsonian NMNH Museum Collection Records databases
http://collections.mnh.si.edu/search/

Smithsonite, Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/smithsonite.html