morris the saurus

Let me take you back, way back.

It was 1970 and the most popular song this year was Simon and Garfunkel with their hit “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Young people wore tight shirts and their hair shaggy.

While dilly dallying and searching for arrowheads in the hills surrounding Gunnison, Colorado, two college students came across something exciting. An exposed dinosaur bone was there for the plucking.

Now, a scapula, four tail vertebrae, and pieces of a rib from this Apatosaurus are out for anyone to see in the basement of the science building on Western State College campus. They rest in a glass case under the less than pleasing flickering of fluorescent light.

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My friend, Dr. Ryan King is a paleontologist who is re-opening this quarry to see what else might be hiding in these hills. By finding and organizing more of the skeletal remains, a better understanding of this small-head-and-big-body-dinosaur will emerge.

After asking nicely over and over to be included, Ryan let my friend Andrew and I accompany him in excavating the closed dinosaur quarry, where the original Apatosaurus skeleton fragments were found. 

“Morris the Saurus", named for the formation of rock he or she was found in, walked the Jurassic river flood plains around 150 million years ago, was around 70 feet long, and could weigh up to 22 tons.

To get to the quarry, we drove to a place where the ground was tan with intermittent clusters of sage on slight hills. Each hill resembled the next. I know that I could not find this place again on my own.

We walked away from the road with lugging shovels, 5 gallon buckets, rock hammers, and little whisk brooms (an official dinosaur digging kit). We kept walking further and further away from the road and at last we stopped in the middle of some sage bushes.

Ryan pulled out surveying tape, and I assisted by holding one end. He measured out a rectangle 4 x 7 meters. After nailing in stakes to mark corners of our study area, he tied pink neon string to rope off the area. This is the area that we would be moving dirt out of.

I was worried at first, imagining that each dig of a shovel I could break a prehistoric bone in half.

I chipped away at the side of the dirt bank with a rock hammer. The overburden moved more quickly, but still no bones. Just a lot of tan dirt. I fidgeted with my gloves and filled up more and more 5 gallon buckets. It was monotonous work, not finding any buried bones. My back hurt.

The only thing I found that day were bones from a deer that probably died last winter.

Late in the afternoon, Ryan told us that we can start packing up. He apologized that we didn't find anything. I can tell that he was more disappointed than us. Andrew and I were just excited to tell our friends that we went on a dinosaur dig. But really, all the exciting things happened the next day.

Ryan struck gold! Prehistoric gold.

Under that hot Colorado sun, he found a rib, and several pieces of vertebrae, called transverse processes.

The hunt for the bones is ongoing. Ryan’s ultimate goal is to collect more of the Apatosaurus’ bones, put the fossilized pieces back together from all the excavations, and to further study this dinosaur that lived in Gunnison County 150 million years ago.