In the 1800s, the Gold Rush in California made a lot of people start digging in the mountains. While they were hunting for their treasure, they stumbled across entire fossilized skeletons. Railroad and bridge builders also found dinosaur bones in other states. Soon, several fossil hunters were competing with each other to see who could find the biggest, the most unusual, and the greatest number of dinosaur bones.
When the area known as the Morrison Formation was discovered, there was probably as much excitement among the fossil hunters as there had been when gold was discovered in California. This area, which was filled with dinosaur fossils, stretched from Canada almost to the Mexican border. It was as large as the state of Texas.
This discovery occurred during what was called the “Bone Wars,” and it increased the rivalry or competition between two of the most well-known fossil hunters, Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh. Because of these battles, they discovered many new dinosaurs, but their disagreements and deliberate trickery also led to misnaming, renaming, and even the destruction of some of the specimens.
As people started traveling to more remote or distant spots in the 1900s, they found that dinosaur fossils were scattered all over the world. Some were even in Antarctica, in South America, and areas of Asia.
You would think that because people have been searching for so many years, there wouldn't be any new discoveries to make, but paleontologists and geologists (and amateur fossil hunters just like you) keep finding new varieties of dinosaurs every year.
When new fossils were discovered in Tanzania during the 1900s, more than 200 tons of fossils were dug up, hand-carried by workers to ships, and sent thousands of miles away to museums.
Who am I?
On each hand I had five fingers. On each foot I had three toes. I am probably just the opposite of what you would think of as a dinosaur who was all wet. Who am I?
It certainly would have been easier on these workers if they had been carrying bones that had been turned into Amazing Bones! To make an Amazing Bone, all you need is a chicken bone left over from dinner. Clean it well and place it in a clear jar filled with one cup of vinegar. Check the bone each day for a week and see what happens!
What Is the Cost?
Do you think that the people who were living in the late 1800s wondered what was wrong with the fossil hunters? Why were they willing to spend so much time and money to save a few bones?
People must have wondered if most of these men and their sponsors (the people who supported them) were interested in history and science. There were also many buyers anxiously awaiting these one-of-a-kind treasures. Were the fossil hunters more interested in making a profit?
What would you do if you found a dinosaur skeleton? Would you try to sell it? There are some people who buy dinosaur bones, but the price is not as high as you might think it would be. You might guess that they would be worth millions of dollars, but some people are only willing to pay a few thousand, even for a nearly complete dinosaur.
Wrapping It Up
Words to Know
Specimens are samples of something. If you wanted to know how a whole batch of cookies turned out, you could sample one cookie; that cookie would be a specimen. Dinosaur bones are specimens used to learn about the dinosaurs.
You might think that finding the bones would be the hardest part of fossil hunting, but usually the biggest problem is shipping them safely from one place to another. The buyers of these fossils often live far from the place where the fossils are found. Many of the early fossils were destroyed because, just like your bones, they can break.
Oddly enough, these bones were prepared for their trip in much the same way that the doctor would protect your bones if they had been broken. Both the doctors and the dinosaur hunters use plaster of Paris, a powder that becomes hard after you add water to it. The doctor doesn't want this to stick to your skin, so he wraps your leg with cloth to protect it.
The fossil hunters used to use paper to wrap the bones, but now they use a clear plastic next to the bone. The plaster cast then goes on top of the protective layer. When the bone reaches its new home, the process is reversed to remove the cast. Sometimes the fossil hunters only excavate one-half of the bone, leaving some stone around the fossil to protect its underside. Recently doctors have started using air-filled supports for temporary casts. Do you think today's fossil hunters do the same thing?
Words to Know
When you excavate something, you remove it from somewhere. The dinosaurs’ bones are usually excavated from the ground. Sometimes they are found under the water or layers of rock.
The Job Is Just Starting
As you can see, there are many jobs associated with fossil hunting. How many jobs can you name that could help people see the dinosaur treasures? What about paleontologists, museum curators, geologists, park rangers, artists, and structural engineers who build the exhibits?
You probably didn't know that they need explosives experts, too. One dinosaur was found with just its tail sticking out of a mountain! Rather than using hammers, chisels, or some type of knife to dig out the bones, these fossil hunters had to very carefully use explosives and then find a way to haul tons of rock away from the site!
Do you think that they may have accidentally destroyed many of the specimens with these methods? Once the paleontologists excavate enough to see the outline of the bone, they use delicate instruments like dental tools, an ear syringe, a paintbrush, a tape measure, and an awl to finish uncovering the bones.
Who am I?
By my name, you might think I was related to a hawk or other birds of prey. I had extremely sharp claws and a long neck. I may have been small compared to a lot of the dinosaurs, but I was a big hunter. Who am I?
Your Own Excavation
If you want to see what it is like to go on an excavation, all you have to do is take a half gallon of vanilla ice cream, place it in a large bowl, and allow it to thaw just a little, until it is soft enough to stir. Mix a package of gumballs into the soft ice cream, and then scoop it into foam cups and refreeze it.
When the ice cream becomes hard again, you and your friends or your family can try digging out or excavating the gumballs while trying not to disturb the ice cream. When you think you have found all the gumballs, it's time to eat the ice cream, too!