‘Like a 9-ton game of pick-up sticks’: Utahraptor megablock continues to reveal discoveries

A trackhoe pulls the 9-ton field jacketed megablock containing hundreds of bones of Utahraptor and iguanodont dinosaurs from the Stikes Quarry in eastern Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — It has been one year since Utah’s most spectacular dinosaur fossil block, the 18,000-pound Utahraptor megablock, moved from Thanksgiving Point to a new dedicated fossil preparation lab at the Utah Geological Survey.

The first complete shoulder of an adult ever found was uncovered from the megablock in 2020. Also visible are a femur, jaw, ribs, and other bones, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, St. George News

In that year, new unanticipated discoveries hidden within the block have been found, according to a press release issued by the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Preliminary analysis of the 136-million-year-old sandstone and mudstone indicated the megablock contained the remains of at least one adult Utahraptor, 10 juveniles, and three babies; however, upon further investigation, they expect to find more than twice that amount, according to the release.

Discoveries since the move include additional baby and juvenile Utahraptor partial skulls and skeletons and the first complete shoulder of an adult ever observed.

“The timing was very fortuitous,” state paleontologist Dr. James Kirkland said in the release, “because just a few weeks later, the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point had to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Having the megablock in its own space allowed work to continue throughout 2020. The work is tedious. Separating the bones from the block has been like a 9-ton game of pick-up sticks.”

Paleontologist Scott Madsen working at the Utah Geological Survey on the Utahraptor megablock in February 2021. Most of the work is done with the aid of small pneumatic air tools (think tiny jack hammer) while looking through a microscope, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, St. George News

Fossil preservation in the remainder of the block appears exceptional, the release states, lending to the hope that details such as feather impressions may be found. Bones of at least two plant-eating iguanodont dinosaurs were also discovered within the block, leading Utah paleontologists to say they believe the Utahraptor dinosaurs may have been hunting as a pack when they became mired in quicksand, buried, preserved and fossilized.

New dating of the rocks indicates Grand County “raptors” are the oldest in the world.

Weighing perhaps half a ton, this sickle-clawed predator was the real-life version of the ferocious oversized velociraptor portrayed in the movie “Jurassic Park.” Utahraptor is also Utah’s official state dinosaur and the name bearer for the Utahraptor State Park that recently passed the 2021 Utah State Legislature, as previously reported by St. George News. The state park is located roughly 15 miles northwest of Moab and only 10 miles from the hillside from which the Utahraptor megablock was recovered.

Illustration by Julius T. Csotonyi of Utahraptors attacking prey in a quicksand pit | Image courtesy of Jim Kirkland, St. George News

Paleontologists have completed over 3,500 hours on fossil preparation but have really only scratched the surface. Ninety percent of the work lies ahead and the preparation effort is being funded primarily with donations. The Utah Geological Survey provides laboratory space, expert oversight, limited preparation and laboratory materials, according to the release. Salary for the chief preparator, who works at a 50% discount and donates many hours, must be covered by donated funds.

A private donor has given more than $50,000 and has offered to match additional donations up to another $50,000. Working in partnership with the Utah STEM Action Center, the UGS is currently soliciting corporate and individual donations to reach this matching goal. Find further information on sponsorship opportunities and tax-deductible donations online .

The Utah Geological Survey holds the Utahraptor megablock on behalf of Utah’s citizens. Recovered fossils will be reassembled into a pack of Utahraptor dinosaurs and displayed at the Natural History Museum of Utah. Find more information on the Utahraptor megablock online.

The Utah Geological Survey provides timely scientific information about Utah’s geologic environment, resources, and hazards. It is one of seven divisions within the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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