Scientists to Dig Jurassic Site in Wyoming this Summer

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Hunting ground: A huge dinosaur footprint, with wheelbarrow for scale, in Jurassic Mile

They're calling it the "Jurassic Mile," where dinosaurs once chased prey through muck and some of the biggest creatures of 150 million years ago lumbered over a tropical flood plain.

This summer, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis will coordinate a project that will bring over 100 scientists from the U.S. and Europe on a three-month dig at a newly discovered site in the Bighorn Basin of northern Wyoming.

Organizers aren't saying exactly where the site is to discourage any looters and curiosity-seekers — suffice it to say it's on a square mile (2.6 square kilometers) of private ranchland outside Cody, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Yellowstone National Park.

Discovered just a few years ago, the Jurassic Mile already has yielded fossils from some of the biggest dinosaurs of the late Jurassic Period. Among them are long-necked plant-eaters that may be diplodocus- and brachiosaurus-type dinosaurs, professor Phil Manning from the University of Manchester in Great Britain.

Scientists in 2018 dug up an over 6-foot (2-meter) brachiosaur scapula, or shoulder bone. There are also preserved tracks from both predatory and prey dinosaurs.

"It's a snapshot in time of what the Jurassic would have looked like. And if you were to invent a site, the perfect site which allows you to interpret the Jurassic, this would be that site," said Manning, who is scientist in residence at the Indianapolis museum.

The $27 million project, funded in part with a $9 million Lilly Endowment grant, will help bolster the museum's collections, but scientists representing a variety of institutions and disciplines will also take part.

"There's a whole range of fossil plants, small vertebrates and invertebrate fossils that may be discovered there," said Richard Herrington, acting director of science at the Natural History Museum in London.

So far, paleontologists are focusing on two key areas, including what appears to have once been a pond with dinosaur tracks on its shore.

"A few beasties clearly ended up in the mire, as it were. And there's shed predatory dinosaur teeth associated with that. So watering holes are a great place to drink and also great place for predators to pick up some food as well," said Manning.

Another area from roughly the same time period appears to have been a bend in a large, lazy river, where the floating corpses of dinosaurs came to rest before being buried in sediment.

Only a small fraction of the site has been excavated, however. Another layer altogether contains remains of ichthyosaur, a type of large marine reptile.

The University of Manchester, where Manning is chair of natural history, the Natural History Museum in London and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, are among the institutions taking part along with the children's museum.