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Utahraptor Project aims to draw real picture of ancient creature

Man hopes to raise $100,000 to complete scientific work

SALT LAKE CITY — Only a handful of bones prove the Utahraptor ever existed.

In 1991, paleontologists identified the new dinosaur using fragments of a skull, a few vertebrae, a tibia, and toe and hand claws. Although more bones have been found, the Utahraptor skeleton is mostly a paleontologist's best guess of what one of the largest dromaeosaurs may have looked like.

But paleontologists found more Utahraptor bones that could help identify the missing pieces of the skeleton — if they ever get the funding to uncover it.

"We really don't know too much about the Utahraptor to begin with," said Scott Madsen, a fossil preparator. "It's almost getting a Rosetta stone when you get an occurance where you have a lot of bones associated together of different ages."

He heads the Utahraptor Project, a GoFundMe account with a $100,000 goal. The money will go toward uncovering Utahraptor bones inside the "Utahraptor Block," a quicksand trap about the size of a king-size bed.

After starting the project last September, donations had stalled around $16,000. But funding doubled almost overnight after a recent New York Times article came out highlighting the crowdfunding efforts. As of Friday, donations totaled more than $33,110.

"We've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into collecting this thing, and we want to see the project through. And we want to see it done right," Madsen said.

The "Utahraptor Block" was first discovered in 2001 by a geology student who spotted a bone sticking out from a hillside in the Cedar Mountain formation.

The student alerted Madsen and state paleontologist Jim Kirkland, who both worked with the Utah Geological Survey at the time. Together, the two paleontologists searched the mountainside, "armed with one photograph and a vague description of where this thing was in an ocean of rock," Madsen said.

They found the site after hours of searching, but it took more than a decade to get the 9-ton sandstone slab off the hillside and into a museum lab in Lehi.

Madsen was amazed to find at least six dinosaurs are trapped inside the rock, with bones lying like pick-up sticks.

"It’s like doing forensics on things that are 126 million years old," he said.

At least one dinosaur is a herbivore, possibly an iguanodont. The rest are Utahraptors, from “Jurassic World”-size adults to juveniles to newborn hatchlings. Madsen believes the new bones could revolutionize the image of the Utahraptor.

"We've got this amazing size range represented by the fossils we've dug out of there already," Madsen said.

The Utahraptor is typically displayed as 23 feet long, lanky, feathered and long-clawed. The shape and structure of the new Utahraptor bones are a bit different from what paleontologists thought the dinosaur looked like.

The juveniles are more stout like adults, and Madsen theorizes the dinosaurs may have hunted in family packs since a large range of Utahraptor ages were found in the sandstone.

"This might be the only well-documented quicksand trap in the dinosaur record," Madsen said. "We’ve kind of got one shot at getting this right."

But misfortune struck soon after state paleontologists brought the enormous rock to the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point. Madsen lost his job with the Utah Geological Survey after the organization lost money from falling gas and oil prices.

Instead of transforming the world's understanding of the Utahraptor, the bones sat idly inside the sandstone as paleontologists tried to dig up more funding.

After a number of failed attempts to find outside funding, Madsen launched the Utahraptor Project. Most of the money from the GoFundMe goes toward buying equipment, like microscopes and needle tools to uncover the bones.

But Madsen hesitated moving forward after donations slowed, partly because he still needs other tools, like 3-D computer software to document the position of the bones. He also has yet to be paid for his efforts.

"There are just so many bones, so densely packed, and in such good condition, we just didn’t want to trash them," he said.

Paleontologists are hosting a panel at the Salt Lake Comic Con in September to bring awareness to the project and fuel donations.

"This is a time capsule like we’ve never seen before and we probably will never seen again," said Rick Hunter, a paleontologist with the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point.

"The (Utahraptor) sculpture is actually wrong," he continued. "That’s the cool part about the science of this whole thing. It’s going to answer questions that show us what Utahraptor really looks like."