A Utah dinosaur hunter is about to become the first person ever to get a patent on a remote-sensing device to discover buried fossil bones. The story of how Ray Jones developed the instrument is one of hard work and a real love of science.Jones, a radiation specialist at the University of Utah, recently received a a "notice of allowance" from the U.S. Patent Office concerning his device.
The notice means a patent "is definitely going to issue," said Chris Jansen, director of the University of Utah's Office of Technology Transfer.
The instrument is a new twist on the old Geiger counter, specially shielded and calibrated to block out background radiation. In one of its versions, the scintillation meter is mounted on a cart Jones built of PVC piping. In another, it is carried by hand.
It works because often dinosaur bones are mildly radioactive.
As an example, take the San Rafael Swell, where Jones made his first discoveries.
More than 100 million years ago, an ancient sea covered much of Utah. The San Rafael Swell stuck out as a large island. Rivers ran through its formations, leaving breaks where canyons are today. Dinosaurs splashed through its swamps.
Uranium isotopes that are dissolved in water tend to bond chemically with decaying material. Back then, the isotopes would attach to logs and brush accumulations through-out the Swell.
In the 1950s uranium boom, prospectors mapped the positions of petrified logs they found in the southern Utah desert. The logs were "hot" themselves, and therefore valuable as uranium ore. More importantly, their orientation showed where stream channels wound through the landscape of the distant past.
Following trails of stone logs, prospectors would come upon ancient logjams of brush and vegetation, now turned to stone. These spots held valuable uranium ore, which they mined.
Jones used to help his dad, Lamar, prospect in the region. (Jones' given name is Ramal, Lamar spelled backward. Friends in Salt Lake City know him as Ray, but friends in his native Castle Dale still call him Ramal.)
Frequently father and son turned up logs of petrified wood that were radioactive. Jones reasoned, "What if not only vegetation bonded with uranium iso-topes? What if other kinds of decaying organic material had the same effect - like dinosaur bones?"
"I got a feeling those bones would be hot," he said. "And sure enough, they were hot."
During an expedition in the San Rafael Swell three years ago, Jones showed the Deseret News how the invention works.
He wheeled his device around
the bleak landscape of bentonite and gravel, making radiation readings. Under direction of professionals from the College of Eastern Utah, a crew of volunteers dug into spots marked with scraps of paper that were held in place by rocks.
Jones was dressed in work clothes and a stained cowboy hat with the edges turned up. A canteen sloshed at his belt, and he carried a magnifying glass attached to a thong around his neck. When he wasn't peering through it at fragments of fossil bone, he kept it tucked in his shirt pocket.
Nearby, his wife, Carole, knelt on yellow foam packing insulation to protect her knees from the hard rocks, her face shadowed by a floppy-brimmed white hat. She worked at a spot the couple had marked, poking with a screwdriver to loosen the dirt around the bone that was, indeed, exactly where the instrument said it would be.
The black fossilized bone had belonged to a hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur. It may be a species of hadrosaur that is new to science.
The couple had set out to discover a dinosaur quarry in the Cedar Mountain formation, where few bones had been found before. Carole Jones had noticed bits of dinosaur bones on the surface. So while most of the hadrosaur bones were pinpointed by the device, it didn't actually discover the dinosaur.
But it did pick up another ancient beast in the same region.
"During the excavation of the hadrosaur we picked up radiation readings that indicated there was some more bones on the site, and we dug down and found the nodosaur," Jones said.
A nodosaur was a small, lumbering vegetarian dinosaur with rows of spikes along its sides and armor plates on its back. This one too may be a new species.
"That animal we would have never found without the instrument because the bone layer for that one was considerably deeper than for the hadrosaur bone. As far as I'm concerned that's the first dinosaur that was found using the remote sensing equipment," Jones said.
Another spectacular find came in 1995, when Jones used his instrument to locate the head of a dinosaur at Dinosaur National Monu-ment. Two years before, most of the skeleton was lifted by helicopter from the quarry to the monument headquarters, but excavators couldn't find the head.
Dan Chure, the monument superintendent, invited the Joneses to survey the site. "I located the hot spots, and within a few minutes there they hit bone. They exposed the bone, and after about two hours' work we realized we were looking at the back of the skull."
When it was excavated, "that skull is one of the most complete hadrosaur skulls ever found," he said. "It's really a beautiful skull."
WHAT MAKES HIM TICK? Why would he put so much time and effort into finding ancient bones that, under the law, must remain in federal ownership?
"I've always had an interest in geology . . . . My earliest dream, as a young schoolboy down in Emery County, was to become an archaeologist or go to the School of Mines and become a geologist. My interests lie there. But things took me into the nuclear field, and that's where I spent most of my time."
He worked for General Electric for many years. About 10 years ago he began working for the U., where he is a radiation analyst.
"That allowed me to be in an atmosphere where I could cultivate that interest. I started taking classes in geology again."
Seeking to broaden his experience, Jones took a weeklong trip to the University of Utah's Long Wall dinosaur quarry near Castle Dale. The expedition was led by Frank DeCourten, who at the time was the paleontologist on the staff of the Utah Museum of Natural History, based at the U.
DeCourten talked about the gaps in our knowledge about dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period. The Long Wall Quarry is in the Cedar Mountain formation, which dates to the Cretaceous. Jones knew that the Cedar Mountain breaks out in many places throughout the San Rafael Swell.
"I love science . . . . I told my wife, `Let's go find a dinosaur.' And so we started searching the Cedar Mountain by Castle Dale and after two years, we found the Carol site."
The Joneses share a rare joy, the thrill of finding extinct animals. They "plan on doing it for the next 20 years," staying in the desert in their small trailer, searching for the ancient remains.
"Basically, what we've done is we've given paleontology two new dinosaurs and we pretty much helped get them out of the ground, and we gave a new tool to paleontologists to aid them in locating fossil bone."
Besides, Jones added, "Carole and I enjoy the desert in the early morning hours."