High school student secures Dixie State grant to map previously unknown dinosaur track sites

Composite image. Foreground: Conner Bennett kneels by a dinosaur track in Warner Valley, Utah, circa May 2015. Background: Dinosaur tracks at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, St. George, Utah, October 31, 2016 | Foreground photo courtesy Jennifer Bennett, background photo by and courtesy Jim Lillywhite, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — When Desert Hills High School junior Conner Bennett was a kid, much like other young boys, he loved dinosaurs. And now as a teenager, he has been given the opportunity to pursue that passion with hands-on experience in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area thanks in part to a research travel grant from Dixie State University, the first such grant awarded to a concurrent enrollment student.

“I grew up watching ‘Jurassic Park’ and all these dinosaur movies, and it really took me by storm,” Bennett said. “Even when I was little, I loved watching documentaries and reading books about dinosaurs. If you ask anybody in my family, they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, He was the dinosaur kid.’

Four years ago, Bennett started volunteering at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, and at the beginning of this school year he applied and was accepted for an internship. Wanting to learn even more, Bennett approached Andrew Milner, paleontologist and curator at the Johnson Farm site, and was invited to join Milner in June mapping over 200 sites around Lake Powell.

The “Lost Tracks” indeed

Many of the sites Milner and Bennett will be working on were unknown to the National Park Service previous to the 2015 publication of “The Lost Tracks: A Journal of Discovery” by Andre Delgavis.

Milner said that while Delgavis was out on his houseboat, he would go exploring and hiking around. In the process, he came across these previously undiscovered dinosaur track sites, something that the park service would like to know about. Delgavis has since reported the sites to the park service, Milner said.

“I went out with him last summer with the (park service) and recorded tons of localities – some pretty amazing localities.” (See Ed. Note)

One of the sites – nicknamed Andre’s Alcove Track Site after the “Lost Tracks” author – is particularly impressive, Milner said. The site is in an area of Navajo sandstone, the same types of formations seen in Zion National Park.

“This particular site is interesting because it’s kind of like a little oasis in the middle of the dunes,” Milner said. “You got either a rise in water table, probably during the wet season, so you get these animals walking across these carbonate mudflats between the sand dunes. It preserves probably hundreds of footprints on more than one track layer.”

Andrew Milner, paleontologist and curator, Dinosaur Discovery Site, St. George, Utah, Oct. 31, 2016 | Photo by and courtesy of Jim Lillywhite, St. George News

In addition to the size of the site and quantity of tracks, Milner said, there is also a wide variety of dinosaurs evidenced at the site.

“It not only contains small- and medium-sized dinosaur footprints from meat-eating dinosaurs, but we also have another track type … which are made by a group of dinosaurs probably like prosauropods, which are ancestors to the long neck, long tail sauropods that you see later in the Mesozoic, like the brontosaurs and things like that. … And those are actually quite rare.”

The plan is to map these sites to protect them from both natural elements and human interference. Milner said the presence of the invasive quagga mussel and algae buildup on the rocks is hindering efforts to locate tracks. In addition, there has been evidence of possible attempted theft.

“We noticed that one of the tracks that Andre Delgavis found on this site that was on a loose block had actually been moved quite a distance away and been damaged,” he said. “Law enforcement was brought in, and they pretty much confirmed this was an attempted theft of the dinosaur track.”

More than anything, the sites will offer a clearer picture of the past. Although Bennett has worked at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, this expedition will be his first experience working out in the field on such an important project.

In his grant proposal to the Dixie State University Undergraduate Research Office, Bennett said that most of the funding for the trip would be handled by the National Park Service; however, he needed to secure funds for his personal expenses, including food and transportation.

Originally Bennett set up a GoFundMe account, but then he heard about the possibility of a research travel grant through Dixie State University.

“They had sent this out in an email, so this was a spur of the moment thing,” he said. “We had received it and thought, ‘Hey, I was in a concurrent enrollment class, so I might shoot for it.’”

While the requested amount wasn’t outlandish – just $175 for food and gas – it did mark a somewhat historic moment, Bennett said, as he was told by the university that they had never had a high school student apply for a grant.

“So it was a spur of the moment thing for them too.”

Bennett was notified Friday the grant was approved. Having secured his travel expenses, his grant proposal indicates that he may have additional costs related to contributing to “housing, tools, and equipment.” As of Friday, his GoFundMe fundraising goal of $500 was halfway met.

What’s next?

Following this trip back in time this summer, Bennett will return to the present to graduate high school next year. Following graduation, he said he is planning on pursuing the fields of paleontology and lidar technology. Lidar – light detection and ranging – is a mapping method of measuring relative distance using laser pulses.

First discovery of a natural cast footprint on Johnson Farm in February 2000, Dinosaur Discovery Site, St. George, Utah, Oct. 31, 2016 | Photo by and courtesy of Jim Lillywhite, St. George News

“It will send light waves onto the Earth’s surface,” Bennett said. “With that, you can map through loose soil, vegetation. You could see things that you couldn’t see with your regular eyes.”

The technology is most often used in a plane or helicopter, but Bennett said he’d like to explore using a drone, something which is becoming more common.

“A lot of people use drones, because they’re cheaper,” he said. “You can pay $200, get a good drone and then spend 30 minutes over a dig site mapping it out.”

While he isn’t sure where he’s going after graduation, he plans on continuing his internship at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site his senior year. And that is just fine by Milner.

“He does fantastic work,” Milner said. “He works very hard. He’s got lots of patience. And it looks to me that this is what he wants to do for a living. Kind of like my dream when I was 7 years old. I wanted to be a paleontologist and now I’m doing it for a living. I think he has a very bright future ahead of him.”

Ed. Note: This article has been updated for clarification.

Email: pdail@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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3 Comments

  • Foxyheart February 10, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    Congratulations, Connor! I wish I had had your opportunities when I was growing up, the world is yours.

  • Striker4 February 11, 2018 at 9:27 am

    Live your dream young man

  • Jennifer February 11, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    We couldn’t be prouder of Conner. Much thanks to Andrew Milner, Jerry Beck, and Rico DelSento for all their support in this project!

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