It looked like the perfect chance to earn a few dollars for his sophomore year at Weber State College and to "get away from it all," so Brian Versey accepted the job helping a Brigham Young University crew look for dinosaur bones at Dry Mesa Quarry in western Colorado.
The peace lasted one night. Early on the morning of Aug. 18, Versey saw what looked like the end of a huge bone, protruding from the sandstone. A few minutes later, Clifford Miles, bone preparator, found a similar bone tip a few inches away."We tried to clear the stone around the bones so we could remove them," Miles said. "When we dug back and found that the bones were connected, we knew we had something big."
Big enough to draw a crowd of press people Thursday, shattering Versey's solitude and turning him into an instant celebrity. The BYU crew had uncovered three vertebrae - believed to be the largest ever found - and the ilium, or pelvic bone, of a supersaurus, a dinosaur some authorities believe to be the second-largest species to roam the Earth.
The partially fossilized bone group is 52 inches wide, 6 feet long and is estimated to weigh 1,500 pounds. It is from an animal that died about 133 million years ago.
"We said `Hurray, oh darn,' " Miles said. "We were excited about the find, but we knew how much extra work it would mean."
Since then, Versey, Miles and dig director Ken Stadtman have spent 10 hours a day using brushes, ice picks and air-powered chisels to remove six cubic yards of stone from the area around the fossil.
The bones will be wrapped in wet newspaper, then encased in burlap and plaster of Paris to protect them for the trip to Provo, where they will become part of BYU's collection - one of the world's largest - of more than 10,000 prepared bones and 100 tons of unprepared bones.
The first bones (shoulder blades) attributed to a supersaurus were unearthed about 20 feet away in 1972. Scientists have since argued over whether the supersaurus is a separate species of dinosaur or simply larger examples of known species from the diplodocidae family. With each new fossil, evidence mounts that the supersaurus is a separate species, said paleontologist Jack McIntosh, a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
"There is a two-in-three chance supersauruses are a `new' individual, not just another large member of the diplodocidae family," he said.
McIntosh said the recent find may be from the same animal whose shoulder blades were found, but it is more likely from a smaller supersaurus, possibly even a juvenile.
Evidence indicates supersauruses grew to as long as 130 feet - about the length of one and two-thirds tennis courts. They had very long necks and tails, and their hind legs were longer than their front legs. They had hollow spines, so are considered light for their size.
Wade Miller, chairman of BYU's geology department, said the supersaurus whose vertebrae was recently found probably weighed about 20 tons and was 100 feet long.
Supersauruses were plant eaters and had thin, pencil-like teeth at the front of their jaws. Paleontologists speculate supersauruses probably stood on their back legs while eating leaves on high tree branches. Their brains were about the size of a kitten's.
Hundreds of bones from smaller animals surrounded the larger fossil, Miller said.
"Before the Rocky Mountains rose, this area was a stream bed. Currents carried by many smaller bones that were trapped in a jam near the larger bone.
"When most dinosaurs died, their bones were crushed and eaten by carnivores or other organisms. For bones to survive long enough to fossilize, there had to be a quick burial. If a dinosaur died in or near the water, it was sometimes covered with silt and its bones were preserved," he said.
The Dry Mesa site is part of the Morrison Formation, which runs from Utah to Oklahoma and from New Mexico to Wyoming. BYU crews have been excavating the Dry Mesa Quarry site, 30 miles east of Delta in western Colorado, since 1972, the year after it was discovered by amateur paleontologists Vivian and Eddie Jones.
The couple told their friend "Dinosaur Jim" Jensen, then the curator of BYU's earth science museum, about their find, and he visited the site the same day.
"I came out here and dug six or seven holes and found bones in every one of them," Jensen said. "I knew we were onto something."
Since then, bones from more than a dozen dinosaurs and hundreds of smaller animals have been recovered in the annual digs. The largest fossil found so far was the shoulder blades of an ultrasaurus, suspected to be the largest dinosaur species.
The larger bones found at the site belong mostly to the sauropod (lizard-foot) group. Sauropods were large plant eaters with long necks, longer tails and clawed toes. Members of the group, which includes the supersaurus and other members of the diplodocidae family, lived from 180 million to 110 million years ago.
Project cartographer Rod Horrocks said even though dinosaurs became extinct, they should be considered a highly successful group.
"They survived for 100 million years. Humans have only survived for 3 or 4 million years so far," he said.
Another elusive search is for funding. Each year's two-month dig costs an average of $15,000. BYU, National Geographic and the National Science Foundation have helped with some funding, but Miller hopes publicity will draw private donations.
"Everyone is interested in dinosaurs right now. It's not only children, it's adults who are going to the museums. We hope the interest will draw some funding to allow us to continue our excavations."