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NIU’s Josh Mathews is nearly finished jacketing the fossils, which were brought back to the Burpee Museum.
NIU’s Josh Mathews is nearly finished jacketing the fossils, which were brought back to the Burpee Museum.

A pile of limb bones from a sauropod dinosaur.
A pile of limb bones from a sauropod dinosaur.

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

August 27, 2008

NIU students working with Burpee Museum
help dig up major cache of dinosaur fossils

DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University students who went hunting for dinosaur fossils in a remote area of southeastern Utah this summer discovered a Jurassic jackpot – an extraordinary “bone bed” that some believe will continue to yield fossils for decades to come.

The site – where an ancient braided river once flowed – already has produced a variety of dinosaur fossils from the late Jurassic period (about 147 million to 150 million years ago).

The Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, which had scouted the site with assistance from the Bureau of Land Management in Utah and arranged permits for the dig, already has brought back more than 200 bones weighing more than 5,000 pounds.

“We have a whole menagerie of the giant long-necked dinosaurs,” said Joe Peterson, an NIU Ph.D. candidate in geology and research associate with Burpee Museum. “The bones are very impressive – up to 6 to 7 feet long.

“There's just something really cool about being able to lie next to a bone that is as long as you are tall,” he added.

Members of the Burpee expedition, which included museum patrons, recovered numerous fossils from large sauropods, the long-necked dinosaurs with small heads. They are believed to include Brachiosaurus, one of the largest known dinosaurs, and Diplodocus, another huge plant-eating dinosaur.

The Utah expedition also recovered fossils from another type of dinosaur, the spike-backed Stegosaurus, and from a meat-eating dinosaur, most likely Allosaurus, a common Jurassic predator.

While the fossils wouldn't have been readily spotted by the untrained eye, expedition members found what they were looking for upon arriving at the site.

“You get out of your vehicle, walk a couple feet and realize you're walking on bone chips that have weathered out of a butte,” Peterson said, describing the remote off-road site. “There's also petrified wood all over.”

Scott Williams, Burpee collections and exhibits manager and also an NIU student, scouted the site before the museum took groups of patrons and employees out to Utah for the expedition. A number of museum employees are also students at NIU, which has a close working relationship with the Burpee. The museum intends to continue excavation at the site.

“We're hoping this strengthens the museum ties to Northern and other universities,” Williams said. “At least a couple students will be looking at this site for their Ph.D. work. And it just screams to have undergrads come out here.”

Williams, an experienced paleontologist, said the find is a dream come true.

“I'm a history buff and had read about these famous bone beds. I never in my life thought we'd be able to find one. It's nice to know when I'm 80 years old and retired that there's probably going to be people working at that site.”

The Burpee Museum is now cataloguing the fossils that have been brought back.

“We have to study the fossils in the lab before we'll know what mysteries are in there,” said expedition member Reed Scherer, an NIU geologist and paleontologist and member of Burpee Museum's board of directors.

“We know we have a number of different animals, and I believe there will be enough to reconstruct a couple of dinosaurs for display,” Scherer said. “NIU is involved in all parts of that. The bones will be prepared at the joint NIU-Burpee preparation laboratory at Burpee. The small laboratory will be significantly expanded as the museum campus expands over the next few years, following a $10 million capital campaign.”

Others from NIU who participated in the dig include NIU Ph.D. candidate Mike Henderson, curator of earth sciences at the Burpee; geography graduate student Josh Mathews and undergraduates Mindy Householder and Katie Tremaine.

“Basically, everywhere you looked, there were bones,” said Householder, a senior anthropology major from Lake in the Hills. “You could be kicking around in the sand, and there are bones. I've never seen anything like it.”

Evidence of other pre-historic animals also was found.

“There are so many different animals here,” said Tremaine, a senior NIU environmental geosciences major from Oregon. “There were freshwater clams and also some burrows. We basically have a self-enclosed ecosystem here. It's really exciting.”

Tremaine has been working at the Burpee Museum since her senior year in high school.

“Almost our entire staff in the lab at the museum is composed of NIU students. We all go out on these digs. The connection between the museum and university is something both places can really benefit from.”

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