You can’t find a fossil without breaking a few rocks. In the case of a tiny crocodile called Hoplosuchus, that involved some dynamite.
Almost a century ago, laboring beneath the intense summer heat of eastern Utah, paleontologist J. LeRoy Kay was building a trail from the dense bonebed of what would become Dinosaur National Monument down the cliff face. His 10-year-old brother-in-law, Jesse York, was eager to help, but Kay was worried that the kid would get hurt by the heavy equipment being used to plow the trail into the sandstone. So Kay put young Jesse on a special little project. Go dig a blasting hole in the rock, Kay suggested, so that some dynamite could be dropped in.
No one knows exactly where Jesse dug the hole. But after a little while he came back to report that he had completed his mission. Kay kept his promise. Chunks of rock flew high into the air as he blew the small charge, and when the dust cleared the crew working the quarry poked through the rubble to see if the explosion turned up anything interesting. And there, blown out of the Jurassic sandstone, was part of a tiny vertebrate skeleton.
All other work stopped. For hours the field team scoured the Cliffside looking for other pieces. Eventually someone found another chunk of rock that fit perfectly with the first, and when the two were carefully prepared back at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, paleontologists laid eyes on the most beautiful small skeleton ever to come out of the west’s famously-prolific Morrison Formation. At only seven inches long, little Hoplosuchus kayi was a pipsqueak compared to dinosaurs like Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus that it lived alongside, and to date it’s the only known specimen of its kind. All because a paleontologist wanted to keep a kid out of his hair for a few minutes.
The standard way of finding fossils has been the same since the dawn of paleontology. After carefully narrowing down strata of the right age and type, the fossil hunter drives to the exposure, hikes around the outcrop, and looks to pick up the fossil trail. Small crumbs of bone scattered in arroyos or tumbling out of hillsides are usually the first thing to be found, and if the fossil hunter is lucky they’ll be able to follow those to a spot where a limb bone or other treasure is just starting to peek out of the rock. It’s only then that the real work of digging in starts.
Talk to a paleontologist for any length of time, though, and they’ll probably have a story much like Kay’s. Weeks of careful searching may turn up nothing, only to have serendipity reveal what’s hidden in the stone.
After simply scanning the ground for fossil fragments, bathroom breaks are appear to be the most effective way of finding new fossil sites. That’s because looking for just enough cover to take care of business often leads paleontologists and volunteers to isolated spots that might not otherwise be searched. In 1999, for example, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University paleontologist Jason Poole was wandering the 150-million-year-old rock of Montana when he had to stop for a pee break out in the desert. And it was at that spot that he noticed an interesting bone poking out of the gray Jurassic stone. Digging in, Poole and his team found even more of what turned out to be an Allosaurus, but, before the bones even came out of the ground, he gave the dinosaur a nickname for how it was found. Informally, at least, this carnivore is called “Urinator montanus.”
But it’s not just nature’s call that can lead paleontologists to fossiliferous spots that would have otherwise gone undiscovered. For Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences paleontologist Haley O’Brien, the need to get away from everyone else led to some amazing finds.
While digging at some fossil mammal sites in eastern Africa, O’Brien says, “I was lady-hormone-ing real bad one day and decided the best option was to quietly remove myself from the quarry under the guise of prospecting so I could go nuclear by myself.” This is a part of fieldwork that’s not often talked about. “Your body doesn’t exactly stop functioning when you’re in the field, hormones included,” she says. So O’Brien decided to disappear along a winding riverbed leading away from the excavation.
The local geology was perfect for stress relief. “I followed my way around a river bend to an outcrop that hadn’t produced any fossils for years and started picking up half dollar-sized concretions out of the wall for stress relief,” O’Brien says. Just minutes into this exercise, she plucked out an intact rodent skull, which meant that she would have to call the crew over. O’Brien continued to wander, “trying to put off lady-Def Con 10”, but more plucking and chucking stones only revealed more fossils, some of which became type specimens—or the emblematic representatives—of their species. “It was like a Groundhog Day best-worst fossil-finding PMS-fueled nightmare,” O’Brien says.
Explosions, bathroom breaks and emotional stress are only a few of the ways paleontologists and other fossil hunters have stumbled across amazing finds. Paleontologists have literally tripped over fossils, accidentally sat down upon them, camped on top of them, and inadvertently parked on them. Let this be a reminder to all would-be bone chasers: skill and science are certainly necessary in narrowing down where to look for fossils, but sometimes the critical ingredient in making a major discovery is just blind luck.