Grand Staircase book details monument's paleontological wonders

Published: Sunday, Nov. 10 2013 3:29 p.m. MST

Scott Sampson, research curator for the Utah Museum of Natural History shows a cast of the 7-foot skull of Utahceratops gettyi as he announces the discovery of two new horned dinosaurs in southern Utah in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010, in Salt Lake City. A new book, "At the Top of the Grand Staircase," unveils 656 pages of dinosaur research at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was edited by Mark Loewen and Alan Titus, the paleontologist at the monument.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A 656-page book chronicling the paleontological discoveries and success evidenced so far at Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been published, even as new discoveries continue to unfold on a near daily basis.

"I am here to emphasize that we are just getting started at the Grand Staircase," said Alan Titus, the monument's paleontologist. "We have a great big sandbox to play in."

Titus and Mark Loewen are editors of "At the Top of the Grand Staircase: The Late Cretaceous of Southern Utah," recently published by Indiana University Press and the first comprehensive publication documenting the terrestrial record of what was known as of 2009 at the monument.

Titus is adjunct curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and Loewen is an adjunct assistant professor in the University of Utah's Department of Geology and Geophysics and a research associate at the museum.

Both worked painstakingly to put together the paleontological history of the terrain that spans the monument's nearly 2 million acres, which Titus describes in the book as "one of the truly last frontiers in North American geology and paleontology."

The book grew out of a 2009 conference, Titus said, with a desire to put the research compiled so far into one collection.

"Basically what we wanted to do is create an atlas of what we knew at the time," he said.

It's a breathtaking tome of exacting details that will be relished by academia, but the two warn it is just a beginning, a sliver of what exists in the geological record at the monument.

"Nobody knows anything about this package of rocks in southern Utah," Loewen said. "We know a lot about the northern areas of Canada and Montana, but this is our first time to really put together something that is a comprehensive reference on what we know three years ago."

The book's 28 chapters drawing on work from more than 40 authors chronicles the research that has taken place at the monument and what it reveals, from turtles in the Kaiparowits Formation, to anklyosaurian dinosaurs in the Grand Staircase region and salamanders and sharks — all from the late Cretaceous.

For most of that period, a shallow sea subdivided North America into two land masses — the western continent of Laramidia that includes Utah and Mexico — and the eastern continent of Appalachia.

Previously, the bulk of the fossil record of Laramidia came from its northern areas of Montana and Canada.

Most of the geological research done in that portion of Utah and the southwest was coal geology, but Titus said the political act in 1996 creating the monument changed that, becoming the catalyst for a dramatic increase in research on the region's macroinvertebrate paleontology.

In 2000, when the monument plan was approved, Utah's natural history museum teamed up with the University of Utah and began conducting field surveys at the monument in an agreement in which the Bureau of Land Management in Utah rendered financial assistance.

The effort soon spiraled into a large-scale research undertaking called the Kaiparowits Basin Project, tapping the expertise of monument staff, the Utah Geological Survey, museums in Denver and Claremont, Calif., as well as Weber State University and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

In the ensuing decade, the project has surveyed 43,000 acres in two key formations. The research has unveiled more than 2,000 new vertebrate fossil sites and provided new radiometric dates, according to the book.

Donald DeBlieux, who is now the state's assistant paleontologist who works with the Utah Geological Survey, said it is the monument in part that brought him to Utah to work as a geologist digging into the new discoveries.

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