Prospecting for fossils in a southern Utah desert, paleontologist Joe Sertich scrapes dirt from beneath a boulder where he’d spotted bits of skin and bone from a young dinosaur.
Prospecting for fossils in a southern Utah desert, paleontologist Joe Sertich scrapes dirt from beneath a boulder where he’d spotted bits of skin and bone from a young dinosaur.
CORY RICHARDS

Digging Utah’s Dinosaurs

Around 75 million years ago, Utah was part of an island landmass called Laramidia. It was hot and swampy—and dinosaurs ruled.

The Miller brothers looked more like prospectors than paleobotanists. Their beards were caked with dirt; goggles kept their eyes from being sandblasted by the desert winds. Both were big men, more than six feet three, and on a knife-edged ridge in southern Utah they moved with the quiet confidence of outdoorsmen. As Ian swung a pickax into the mudstone, Dane attempted to roll a cigarette between gusts. Loose tobacco flew from the paper. “Doggone it,” he said, and tried again.

Along with Scott Sampson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and Joe Sertich, the museum’s dinosaur paleontologist, the brothers were prospecting for fossils last spring in the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Within that largely roadless wilderness they were exploring a particularly remote area, a maze of steep bluffs and gullies north of Horse Mountain. While the rest of their team was a few miles away, working fossil quarries discovered in previous years, Sampson, Sertich, and the Millers were looking for new ones. After months of office duty at the museum Sampson could barely contain his joy at being “where no paleontologist has ever been before”—with the prospect of discovering new treasure from the “lost continent” of Laramidia.

The layer of mudstone the Millers were hacking into had been deposited on the east coast of that slender landmass, which once stretched 4,000 miles from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Laramidia was created 90 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous period, when rising seas flooded the middle of North America and split it in two. Today Laramidia is buried under the western states; it can be accessed only in eroded badlands like these, where wind and rain have brought its fossil-rich deposits within reach of picks and shovels.

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