For over a century, paleontologists have been digging in the Morrison Formation, the famous western North American cache of dinosaur fossils. While the southern part of the formation, which includes Dinosaur National Monument, has been pretty well studied, the northern reaches still hold a lot of secrets. That’s why an international consortium of paleontological institutions is funding a $27.5 million project dubbed “Mission Jurassic” to excavate an entire square mile of the formation this summer.
More than 100 paleontologists are coming together to dig the “Jurassic Mile,” which is located on private ranchland around 100 miles east of Yellowstone National Park, the Associated Press reports. The dig is being led by the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis—which has 18 years left on its 20-year lease from the landowner of the site—along with the Natural History Museum in London and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands.
The Children’s Museum has already spent two field seasons digging on its own, excavating nearly 600 fossils including an 80-foot-long Brachiosaur and 90-foot-long Diplodocid, Domenica Bongiovanni at The Indianapolis Star reports. Already, inside the Jurassic Mile, paleontologists have found four quarries full of dino bones in the excavation area. Drone footage has identified many more potential dig sites as well. But the Morrison Formation isn't just full of bones—it also has lots of dinosaur footprints and fossils from plants as well as other creatures.
Phil Manning, chair of natural history at the University of Manchester, tells Bongiovanni of the Star that the team hopes to learn more about gymnosperms, ginkos, cycads, ferns and other plants that existed in the Late Jurassic to solve a riddle: How did plant-eating dinosaurs grow so huge while eating a nutrient poor diet? “It’s a bit like me giving you a diet of water and oats for your whole life and you end up being 30 feet tall,” Manning says. “[W]e truly do not yet understand how they managed it.”
In many digs, resources and funding constraints mean that paleontologists spend an entire field season—or several—digging up one dinosaur fossil. The scale of Mission Jurassic, however, will allow researchers to excavate a much larger area during the project and proceed more quickly.
The Children’s Museum has already announced that some of the Jurassic-era bones discovered will be used to expand its Dinosphere exhibition, which currently focuses on the later Cretaceous period, the time when dinosaurs eventually went extinct.