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Dinosaur discoveries in Utah's 'amazing place' get national attention

GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT — In a geologic wonderland of south central Utah, dinosaurs happen.

If you know where to walk and what to look for at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, bones of the former masters of Earth turn up regularly.

"I was walking out here last September between monumental rainstorms and saw some bone fragments on the ground, and that is what we look for," said Scott Richardson, a paleontological technician for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees the monument.

Richardson discovered what is thought to be a previously unknown species of dinosaur similar to a triceratops, the latest in an extraordinary series of dinosaur finds in the area over the past 15 years.

Now, the monument's spectacular bounty of fossils is getting national attention with a story in National Geographic magazine. Utah officials hope the exposure of the remarkable dinosaur discoveries will draw tourists and inspire budding young scientists.

The possible new species discovered by Richardson is already drawing interest from young people. Recently, three students from Snow College were helping Richardson unearth the fossilized bones at the site.

"I think it's a big adventure for me, personally," said student Jason Dillingham. "I think it's pretty awesome. It's amazing."

Fossilized bones found in the monument are taken to the Natural History Museum of Utah to undergo scientific scrutiny. It often takes several years for a new species to be confirmed, usually through analysis of the skull and its associated features.

That's why BLM paleontologist Alan Titus is happy about the progress of the dig triggered by Richardson's discovery.

"We've already got evidence of a skull," Titus said. "So I'm very optimistic for this site. It's very exciting to have a skull turn up in the excavation so early on."

If it proves to be a new species, it will be the latest in a long series of such discoveries in the years since President Bill Clinton designated the national monument in 1996.

"Well, in the last 15, years we've uncovered approximately 20 new species of dinosaur," Titus said, "nine of which have actually been named."

The remaining 11 are still being examined to confirm they are dinosaur species previously unknown to science.

"There's a lot. There's whole menageries," said James Kirkland, state paleontologist. "We have a (fossil) record there that lasted over 20 million years of almost complete history. We're still filling in the history."

The discoveries include previously unknown species of sea-dwelling dinosaurs up to 30 feet long and the earliest horned dinosaurs that lived on land. According to Kirkland, they lived approximately 70 million to 90 million years ago, an epoch known as the Upper Cretaceous when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

And apparently there are many more bones to find.

"It's just really being nibbled at," Kirkland said. "I mean, all the new discoveries we're seeing there are just the tip of the iceberg."

Now, scientists are delighted to see the discoveries highlighted in National Geographic.

"It can help with funding," Kirkland said. "Funding is very difficult. We're not curing cancer with dinosaurs, but we excite kids."

That kind of excitement sometimes launches careers, although Snow College student Alli Lancaster was making no commitments.

"I haven't quite decided what I want to do, but this would be a lot of fun," Lancaster said as she brushed millions of years of sediment from a dinosaur bone.

At the same dig site in the national monument, Titus applauded the coverage by National Geographic.

"Everybody else gets to find out what a handful of scientists have known for decades: Grand Staircase really is an amazing place," he said.