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Dinosaur death trap outside Arches National Park could reveal a lot about how they lived

Published: Monday, June 17 2013 10:40 a.m. MDT

Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

MOAB — A herd of dinosaurs are trapped in rock outside Arches National Park, and state paleontologists need a helicopter to bring it back to the lab to see what’s really inside.

State paleontologists hope to line up a helicopter in the next few weeks to bring back the extraordinary discovery near Moab.

There's apparently a whole gang of fossilized Utahraptors high on a steep slope, just below a cliff. It's now protected by paleontologists with a jacket of plaster and burlap.

"It's certainly one of the most amazing things that I've seen in my career,” said Don DeBlieux, a paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey who has seen thousands of fossils throughout his career.

Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

It's believed to be a dinosaur death trap. State paleontologist Jim Kirkland theorizes that a pack of Utahraptors attacked a plant-eating dinosaur stuck in quicksand about 100 million years ago.

"(They) found this big hulking herbivore stuck in the mud. They went in, probably a feeding frenzy, these Utahraptors, old ones and young ones, and in turn, a bunch of these animals got stuck in the mud,” Kirkland said.

Scientists have been carving out the pile of bones for a decade, he said.

"This thing was found in 2001 by a student doing geology out here,” Kirkland said.

Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

Around the edges of the 5-ton rock they've found numerous jawbones “just on the outside of this monster,” he said, "and what's in it is so dense, we can't put an ice pick into it without hitting a skeleton."

Kirkland said more than a dozen dinosaurs could be stuck in the enormous rock.

"What's really good about this, too, is the preservation of the bones is just exceptional," said Scott Madsen, also a paleontologist with the Utah Geological Survey.

Madsen said he’s excited by the extraordinary find, but it’s in the worst position one can ask for in terms of recovering dinosaur bones.

“We have this enormous block, have an incredibly steep slope, debris covered, (and) the weather is horrible a lot of time,” he said. “There’s just a lot of things working against us here. The biggest part of that being the size of this block.”

Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News/KSL Chopper 5) Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News/KSL Chopper 5)

The next step for the paleontologists is to get the rock to the lab and pick it apart.

The problem, of course, is how do they get it out of here and into a lab where they can do what needs to be done? It would require a heavy-lift helicopter from out of state.

"This is pretty much bigger than anything the Air National Guard in Utah has available,” Kirkland said.

Because the helicopter option seems unlikely, Ames Construction is donating its services for an alternate plan: building a protective box and dragging the thing down the steep slope. The worry is that the fragile fossil may not survive the bumpy ride.

"Because when you flex it, all the rock fractures and the bone inside fractures along with it,” Madsen said.

Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Members of the Utah Geological Survey work at the Stikes dinosaur quarry about 25 miles from Moab on Tuesday, June 4, 2013. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

They may risk it. After a decade of working on they project, state paleontologists are anxious to see what’s really inside the massive rock. The process could take 20 to 30 years. It can take days just to analyze a tiny bone and remove all the debris on it. A lot of the work is done under a microscope.

“The dinosaurs from this formation are quite rare,” DeBlieux said. “Often you’ll get a bone or two from an individual. Here we’re going to have lots of parts, so we are going to learn a lot about their anatomy, how they lived, how they related to other dinosaurs.”

Email: hollenhorst@deseretnews.com

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