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Snapshots: Where the Dinosaurs Are

I licked a dinosaur. Really.

As a photo editor for National Geographic, I spend most days in a D.C. office dealing with the practicalities of getting photographers to far-off places: visas, permits, tickets, equipment, budgets, etc. And once the photographers return, I look at tens of thousands of pictures, poring over minute differences to choose the best frames for the magazine. But every now and then, I get to go into the field myself. And this time I got to taste a dinosaur.

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My desk at National Geographic, with my beloved Dinosaurs book from 1972.

My interest in natural history started early. When I was around three, my parents gave me a dinosaur book that became one of my prized possessions, and ever since I’ve been fascinated with dinosaurs. When I met paleontologist Jack Horner at a conference and he invited me out to his site in Montana, I was over the moon with excitement. And it wasn’t just me being a dino geek—everyone I told about the dig asked if they could come. Something about dinosaurs is just universal.

But I knew who should come with me: my nine-year-old nephew, Sam. He once led me through New York’s American Museum of Natural History casually naming off every dinosaur we passed. When I asked about Sam’s age, Jack told me he’d found his first dinosaur fossil (a piece of a duckbill) at the age of eight. He sent a photo of the dig—the prettiest he’s ever had, he said—and I propped it on my computer and looked at it every day for six months. I logged onto webcams to watch the weather in Montana. I watched it snow, then I watched the snow melt, and then I watched the grass start to turn green. I watched the trucks go by on the Montana interstate, and I daydreamed of digging up dinosaurs with Sam. I’m not sure which one of us was more excited when we finally boarded that plane to Bozeman. We were both giddy nine-year-olds.

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Paleontologist Jack Horner discovers that nine-year-old Sam Woolery is one Diplodocus femur tall.

We went directly to the Museum of the Rockies, where Jack is the curator of paleontology. In addition to that, he teaches grad students at Montana State University, and he’s trying to turn a chicken into a dinosaur—a chickenosaurus, so to speak—with a little genetic tinkering. (He’s confident it will work.) He was also technical advisor for the three Jurassic Park movies, so he’s become a rock star. Literally. Sam and I repeatedly watched people ask to have their pictures taken with him. It was a little surreal and also cool to see a scientist treated with such awe.

Jack gave us a once-in-a-lifetime tour when he took us into the museum’s massive underground storage area, which was packed from floor to ceiling with dinosaurs of every shape and size. He showed us the museum’s hidden treasures, proclaiming each one his favorite as he opened drawer after drawer of bones, teeth, claws, and just about every other dino part imaginable. He was like a proud father showing off his children.

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Not your average office drawer–this one contains a toothy T. rex jaw.

From one nondescript drawer, I gingerly picked up a tooth of the iconic T. rex, marveling at its size and simplicity. I ran my fingers across the serrated edge, wondering what poor creatures had been unfortunate enough to feel it before me. Sam smiled in incredulous delight as he tried not to topple over while holding a skull cast of a Parasaurolophus, his favorite dinosaur. At five feet long, the skull and crest were taller than he was.

We were practically tripping over the Triceratops, which seemed to be everywhere. The museum has 108, more than any other place in the world. They were so abundant in Montana during the late Cretaceous that Jack compared them to herds of cows. The museum also has more T. rexes than anyone else—13 total. Their Wankel skeleton is the second most complete T. rex ever found (right after Sue in Chicago).

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Sam Woolery takes a test ride on a fiberglass cast of a Triceratops skull bound for display at the Bozeman airport.

There’s a beautiful bronze cast of it that greets visitors outside the museum. We saw the real thing in pieces in numerous crates to be shipped to the Smithsonian, where it will go on display in a new dinosaur hall. (There was a big arrival celebration scheduled in D.C. for National Fossil Day, but it was canceled due to the government shutdown, and it will now be shipped in April.) Once assembled in D.C., it’s expected to be the most viewed dinosaur skeleton in history.

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Fossilized bones are plastered for transport to the museum, but even that doesn’t keep them safe from T. rex.

The dig itself was on ranch land about an hour away. Jack’s grad student and field crew chief, Cary Woodruff, and several other student volunteers helped us set up our tent. This was Sam’s first time camping, so he declared himself “in tent heaven” as he did snow angels on top of our sleeping bags. Later that night, it hit me where we actually were. I said to Sam, “Do you realize this is the very ground that dinosaurs walked around on? This is where they lived. How cool is that?” Sam grinned. With 40-mile-an-hour wind gusts rattling our tent (we were certain we would become airborne) and cows mooing their hearts out, we didn’t get a whole lot of sleep, but we didn’t care. We were finally there on that hallowed dinosaur dirt.

The next morning we learned the proper way to excavate something 155 million years old. Cary described it as like eating corn: You take off one small row at a time. Once you’ve done that, you sweep your area clean and go down another level in the dirt. He showed us how to turn the chisel to excavate the dirt, going in from the side rather than the top so as not to damage a fossil. He warned us to watch for anything black—fossilized bone is black in the ground. But so is petrified wood and coal.

Before long Sam and I were in the groove. Or at least I was. Sam alternated between digging and playing with his new dinosaur transformer, Chasmosaurus. There was something kind of great about the toy dino being being perfectly at home where its “ancestors” had lived.

I found the digging relaxing, like meditating. Clear a row, sweep, repeat. Clear a row, sweep, repeat. In Sam’s case, he found showering himself with dirt to be equally enjoyable, especially since he knew he didn’t have to bathe for a week. I found a particularly nice piece of petrified wood and put it in my pocket to show Cary later. An hour passed and I found a streak of black that I was certain to be a fossil. I excitedly called Cary over and he shook his head and told me I’d found a great piece of wood, maybe even a whole branch. Dejected, I pulled the earlier piece out of my pocket and said, “What do you think of this one?” and he said, “That is a dinosaur bone.” So I had unknowingly excavated my first dinosaur. I just stared at it, in complete disbelief that the small sparkly black rock in my hand used to be part of an 80-foot-long sauropod.

That’s when Cary introduced us to the lick test. Apparently, if you put a dinosaur fossil on your tongue, it’ll stick. Sam and I tried it, and it worked! It was the strangest sensation to have a fossil dangling from my tongue. It stuck a little as I took it off, kind of like dino Velcro. I can’t say much for the dirt flavor, but it’s not every day you get to taste a dinosaur, so we happily spent the rest of the trip putting anything looking remotely like a fossil on our tongues.

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Permineralization causes bone fossils to become sparkly, while the phosphates cause them to stick to your tongue.

We quickly fell into a routine of waking early and lugging our gear up the hill to the site. The heat sneaks up on you, so Cary was fanatical about making sure our eight-person crew stayed well hydrated. We drank enough grape Gatorade to look like Violet Beauregarde. Sam and I would dig with chisels while the others used jackhammers to power through the stubborn sandstone. At noon we’d break for lunch, making peanut butter sandwiches with bread that became immediately crispy in the dry, dusty air, then resume work again until five.

Adam Schimelfening, a volunteer from South Dakota, was the camp cook, and we dined on everything from grilled Totino’s pizzas (which flew off our plates in the strong winds) to medium-rare steaks. One evening I came upon him tenderizing some chicken with his rock hammer. He sheepishly admitted that he’d accidentally pulverized the first piece because he didn’t realize how powerful the hammer would be. The chicken that night was delicious.

Jack came out to the dig to check on the crew’s progress, bringing bottles of ice-cold blue and orange sodas that we immediately gulped down. Blue has never tasted so good. After hearing the latest from Cary, he said, “Let’s go find some dinosaurs!” and headed off into the hills with his pick over his shoulder. There was no way I was going to miss an opportunity like this, so I scrambled to catch up with him. It was one thing to be in an area they knew to have dinosaurs, but it was another thing altogether to have Jack explain how he goes about finding the areas in the first place.

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Dinosaur digger Jack Horner hasn’t missed a season in the field in 45 years.

He showed me how you can tell the age of the land by its color, with different elevations signaling different time periods. So we ascended from the 160-million-year-old gray limestone of the marine Jurassic to the pinkish tan dirt of the 150-million-year-old Morrison Formation. Just above us was the 120-million-year-old red dirt of the early Cretaceous. It was fascinating to see how color clearly defined each time period and gave an idea of what type of dinosaur might be found there. We happened to be in the Diplodocus and Apatasaurus zone. Calling out, “Here dinosaur, dinosaur, heeeere little dinosaur…,” Jack combed the area. I asked him if that ever worked, and he said, grinning, “Sometimes!” as he leaned over to study the dirt.

After a spell of unsuccessful looking, we sat down underneath a tree to cool down and take in the landscape. The scene was unbelievably beautiful, with big puffy clouds dotting the sky and mountains surrounding us. We could see Cary’s dig in the distance, at the same geologic level as ours.

I was starting to worry we weren’t going to find anything, but just a few feet from where we’d been sitting, Jack found a bone. And then another. And then another. They looked like white rocks at first, but up close the texture was different, more porous and stripey, and once I knew what to look for, I started finding them as well. They were dotting the hillside everywhere. We were surrounded by dinos!

Jack said they’re often found at the base of trees because the trees love the phosphate from the bones. He told me of one beautiful T. rex skull that he found with tree roots growing into it. He said there was no way to remove the skull from the tree without destroying it. We didn’t find any skulls, but we did find a bunch of fragments, including a nice piece of rib. Jack’s rule of thumb is that if he finds three bones that look like they belong to the same dinosaur, then there’s a possible skeleton and he’ll dig.

We returned to the dig site, where Sam had gone from being my nephew to being one of the gang. He had bonded with the guys, earning the chance to shovel rocks and, in the days that followed, to use one of the smaller jackhammers.

After nearly a week of digging, I had found some Apatasaurus bones, one with the method Cary affectionately calls the “poke of discovery,” which is accidentally sticking your pick straight into a fossil. But Sam had found a whole Apatasaurus tail vertebra, two feet long from top to bottom. Not bad for his first dig! Sam was thrilled to help Cary plaster the fossil to be taken to the museum for preparation and study.

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Sam Woolery and Cary Woodruff plaster the Apatasaurus vertebra that Sam discovered.

We both came away with a newfound appreciation of the work that paleontologists do. It’s not easy. You have to have patience as well as physical stamina to jackhammer and dig and shovel and chisel for hours at a time, all while dealing with the wind, heat, and sometimes cold. There’s no promise of a reward, but when you do find that sparkly piece of black rock, there’s nothing better. For now, I’m content to look at a small plastic Apatasaurus that has found its way from Montana and now roams my desk in D.C. Until next summer, anyway.

Kim Hubbard is a Senior Photo Editor for National Geographic magazine. She works with photographers to document the wonders of natural history and science, with a special fondness for archaeology and paleontology.

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