Digging Utah’s Dinosaurs

The hunt is on for species that lived in the state’s southern desert, once part of a “lost continent.”

Photograph by Cory Richards

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.

Photograph by Cory Richards

On a cold May evening Sertich and volunteer Billy Doran walk a ridgeline—often the only way to get from here to there in the fossil-rich badlands of southern Utah.

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Photographs by Cory Richards. Art: Raúl Martín. Natural History Museum of Utah

Long brow horns and an unusually big nose set Nasutoceratops titusi apart from its relatives in the Triceratops genus. Named after Alan Titus, the resident paleontologist at Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the healthy plant-eater lived about 76 million years ago, weighed about two tons, and measured about 15 feet long.

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Photograph by Cory Richards. Natural History Museum of Utah

An adult and a juvenile Teratophoneus get a dusting from Geoffrey Leonard at the Natural History Museum of Utah. Like Tyrannosaurus rex, their larger relative, they likely were fierce predators.

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Art: Raúl Martín. Source: Scott Sampson, Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Hot, swampy, and teeming with dinosaurs
Horned and duck-billed herbivores meet at a river 77 million years ago in what is now southern Utah desert. A carnivore called Talos, a birdlike theropod, watches from a tree. The landscape that supported such a dense concentration of species on Laramidia may have resembled the subtropical wetlands of northern Louisiana.

Photograph by Cory Richards

At the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, Carol Lucking of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science cuts through a slab of sandstone with a diamond-bladed rock saw. Her object: bones from a young duckbill.

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Photograph by Cory Richards

Exposed by wind and rain, a two-foot-long segment of a duck-billed dinosaur tail remains embedded in sandstone in the Kaiparowits formation. Duckbills, or hadrosaurs, are so common in this deposit that “we didn’t even collect this one,” Joe Sertich said.

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Photographs by Cory Richards. Natural History Museum of Utah (left); Denver Museum of Nature & Science (right)

Another hadrosaur tail (left) remains in the plaster jacket used to transport it to the museum in Salt Lake City. A fossil branch (right) came from an extinct species of conifer, similar to living sequoia trees, that once may have towered above Laramidian forests.

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Photograph by Cory Richards

At the Natural History Museum of Utah, preparator Tylor Birthisel painstakingly pieces together a puzzle of bones from Denazinosuchus, a late Cretaceous relative of alligators and crocodiles—more evidence that southern Utah had lush wetlands about 75 million years ago. Fossils are often recognized as new species only after they’ve been cleaned and examined in the lab.

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Photograph by Cory Richards. Natural History Museum of Utah

A carnivore from the dromaeosaurid family shares the freight elevator at the Natural History Museum of Utah with exhibit designer Tim Lee. A cousin of Velociraptor, it may have had feathers—and it definitely had slashing talons.

Photograph by Cory Richards

These theropod tracks, up to 17 inches long, cross Flag Point near Kanab. They’re relics of an era 100 million years before Laramidia became an island—and evidence that, in the American West, dinosaurs ruled for a very long time.

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