There's always something amazing waiting to be discovered in Wyoming. But a fossil found near Newcastle, Wyoming, this summer could be the first piece of a remarkable trophy of the prehistoric past.
Michael Payne is a fossil preparator and guide with Paleo Prospectors, a group that takes people out on paleontology adventures where they prospect for fossils on ranches in Wyoming and Montana. Participants can keep whatever they find, so long as it’s not a complete skeleton or has a unique scientific significance.
One of their discoveries this summer might have checked both boxes.
Tall Tales and Long Tails
On July 21, Payne was leading a group on a trip to a ranch south of Newcastle. The region is rich in dinosaur fossils from the Lance Formation, which preserves Wyoming as it was 67 million years ago.
“We had a gentleman named Kevin out there and he said over the radio that he’d found something. So, we came over and took a look at it,” he said.
What they saw was a block of sandstone containing several fossilized vertebrae from the tail of a dinosaur. The block had fallen out of a wall of sandstone, which is how Kevin — he doesn't know his last name — found it.
That discovery alone would make anyone’s Paleo Prospectors trip. But the bones didn’t stop there.
“We started looking at it, and we saw the vertebrae are going straight back in (the rock) all articulated, or in life position,” Payne said.
Articulation means the bones are still in the position they were when the animal was alive, which is a sign of excellent preservation. Kevin definitely wasn’t taking that rock home.
All Skin And Bones?
The bones look like they belong to an edmontosaurus, a large duck-billed hadrosaur. While bones of the large herbivore are common fossils in the Lance Formation, an articulated skeleton is rarer and more exciting.
The prospectors covered the block containing the articulated vertebrae with a plaster jacket. Jackets keep fossils protected and intact so they can be removed from the field.
Paleo Prospectors plan to return to this spot next year. Payne knows there’s a lot more to be found.
“It looks like the rest of the animal is going into the wall,” he said.
There’s even more to be excited about. When an articulated Edmontosaurus is found in the Lance Formation, there’s always a chance to get under its skin.
“There is a tendency for these hadrosaurs found in this kind of sandstone to have skin impressions. We want to take our time to see if it does or does not,” Payne said.
Skin impressions are one thing, but one of the greatest discoveries in the Lance Formation is mummified dinosaurs with a whole skeleton covered with skin. A mummified Edmontosaurus is one of the centerpiece specimens on display at the American Museum in New York City, and another is displayed at the Naturmuseum Senckenberg in Frankfurt, Germany.
Both of these mummified dinosaurs and many others were found in Wyoming.
Once the fossil is completely excavated, the rock will be removed from the surface of the fossil bones. Eventually, it will find a new home in a scientific institution, and a museum in Tennessee is already interested in this discovery.
Regardless, it will likely be several years between the initial discovery and a museum exhibit, especially since the rest of the skeleton is still securely in a hard wall of sandstone. Payne says Paleo Prospectors is up to the challenge.
“We’re going to have to do some figuring. We’ll find a group of volunteers, dig into it, and see what we’ve got,” he said.
The excavation of Kevin’s Edmontosaurus is planned for next summer.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.