Digging for Dinosaurs in Wyoming

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Group of scientists sit on rocky bluff. A Museum-led team spent six weeks during the summer of 2018 at the Cosm Quarry, one of two fossil-rich field sites in Wyoming.
D. Finnin/©AMNH

The Morrison Formation may not be a household name. But the dinosaur species that have been found in this late-Jurassic time capsule—beginning in the late 19th century, when railroad companies first disturbed it while laying tracks out West—certainly are. You know them as Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Allosaurus.

“It’s one of the most iconic formations within paleontology, because it extends all the way from southern Canada to Mexico,” says Mark Norell, Macaulay Curator in the Division of Paleontology at the Museum. “It’s the place where the first great dinosaur discoveries were made in North America.”

“It’s the place where the first great dinosaur discoveries were made in North America.”

Museum paleontologists made some of those famous early finds beginning in the 1890s, with excavations at sites like Bone Cabin Quarry and Como Bluff and, later, Howe Quarry. But there’s more to uncover in the Morrison Formation, especially in the relatively understudied northern portion, which is why a Museum team has been working there for the past three field seasons, focusing on two locales in Wyoming in partnership with the Nova University of Lisbon, Portugal. The results, both in the scale and quality of fossil discoveries, are exciting.

“I have 20 years of experience in excavations, and I’ve never seen a site as rich as this one, with packs of skeletons one on top of the other,” says Octavio Mateus, a professor at Nova University and a Museum research associate. One hypothesis is that the area was once home to a wide river, which swept up and preserved a large number of animals.

Last summer, two teams tag-teamed on a six-week expedition, removing layers of rock, unearthing new specimens, and jacketing them in plaster for transport on their way to preparation, study and, eventually, a place in the Museum’s growing collection. Here is a quick glimpse into what goes on during a modern-day dinosaur dig.

This Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition was generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

A version of this story appeared in the Winter issue of the member magazine, Rotunda.