The Colorado Plateau is a dinosaur cemetery. Researchers will forever be trying to unscramble mysteries of the giant beings that once roamed this area.
In May, a curator at the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, Colorado, co-authored a new study showing the eating habits of dinosaurs at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry outside Fruita. The findings suggest that some dinosaurs resorted to cannibalism in order to survive tough times, such as drought. Dr. Julia McHugh said new technology and questions allow paleontologists like her to make new discoveries.
“Dinosaurs are so magical because they are so iconic,” McHugh told the Grand Junction Sentinel in a recent story. “Everyone knows about them, but they are so fantastic and wild and weird and gigantic. They just blow your mind for what is possible for an organism to look like and function.”
In her studies, she cited a layer of sandstone common on the Colorado Plateau, including the Moab area. She calls the Morrison Formation ”sort of the battleground for the bone wars of the late 1800s.” That rock formation “has been looked at in earnest by scientists for over a hundred years, and we’re still learning new things. It’s amazing.”
The quarry near Fruita was known to have fossils that showed bite marks on bones from predators, McHugh said, but no one had studied them in depth. So, McHugh, who is also a professor at Colorado Mesa University, and her fellow researchers Dr. Stephanie Drumheller of University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Domenic C. D’Amore from Daemen College, as well as Colorado Mesa University geology students Miriam Kane and Anja Riedel decided to take a closer look.
“We were expecting to find maybe 1% to 5% of the bones to have marks on them, but we’re up close to 30%,” McHugh said. “So we found way more than we were expecting,” she told the Sentinel.
Not only did the researchers find more bites than expected, what the dinosaurs were eating was a surprise, as well. Some of the predator dinosaurs had bite marks on their bones from members of their own species, which McHugh said indicated those dinosaurs resorted to cannibalism during times of limited food supply like a drought.
“You know Colorado is famous for cannibals,” McHugh said, referencing ‘Colorado Cannibal’ Alferd Packer, who made a noteworthy dietary decision in the winter of 1874 while traveling over the San Juan Mountains. “But, it turns out, dinosaurs were doing it first 152 million years ago.”
The research also indicated that Fruita may have been home to a larger predator than had previously been found in the fossil record, McHugh said. The team found evidence of small- and medium-sized predators like Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus, but also something bigger between 35 and 40 feet, nearly Tyrannosaurus rex size.
“We have some marks from a really big guy, like crazy big,” McHugh told the Sentinel. “We don’t have the fossils in the quarry to let us know there was an animal that big, but now we know there was an animal that big because we have the bite marks.”
Being able to work in an area like Fruita where there are active dinosaur quarries to research has been a privilege, McHugh said. Many researchers are not able to spend as much time in the field as she can being right next door to dig sites.
“I have a lot of colleagues who have to cram all of their fossil collecting into just a few weeks in the summertime when they have a window of opportunity,” McHugh said. “Here, you know you’re living out where other people have to travel to do their field work,” she told the Sentinel.
Being a geologist and paleontologist has been a dream for McHugh since she was a child, she said. While she loved dinosaurs like many kids do, she said she originally got into fossil shellfish and coral she could find near her childhood home in Kentucky.
“When I was in school way back, my first earth science course, it was eighth grade so it wasn’t super in-depth or anything, but it sort of introduced me to the history of life on Earth,” McHugh said. “I just got really fascinated with how different it was back before there were any land animals and there were these weird coral reefs that don’t exist anymore.”
She decided to pursue geology as an undergraduate student at Hanover College in Indiana and was told by professors that she would change her mind. That didn’t happen.
“I actually did major in geology and got into paleo, and by the time I was done with college I was like, ‘Well I still don’t know a lot of stuff and I want to know more,’” McHugh said. “So then I went into a masters program for a couple years. I did projects there and I still hadn’t gotten it out of my system yet.”
McHugh went on to earn a PhD from the University of Iowa in 2012 and after a couple of years working as a researcher became curator of the Fruita dinosaur museum in 2014. She said she’s loved her time in western Colorado, calling Fruita her favorite place she’s lived. Outside of her work she said hiking and photography are how she likes to spend her time.
“It’s really hard to find pictures of me because I am always the one holding the camera, but I’ll be out on the trails hiking and camping and that sort of thing,” McHugh said. “Once wildflower season hits you can find me somewhere on the top of Grand Mesa.” While she said she enjoys research projects and sharing the new discoveries that come from that, McHugh said she also enjoys teaching both through her classes at CMU, at Dinosaur Journey and in the field.
“It’s a way for the public to get really excited and have a really open mind to learning science without feeling like you’re sitting in the classroom feeling like you need to memorize these equations and everything,” McHugh said. “They’re just naturally excited.”
Fieldwork, like what is done at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry in particular, is special, McHugh said, because of the different experience levels for the people who work there. There are professional researchers, CMU students, regular volunteers and programs that bring in children and families to experience a dinosaur dig. Most of the fossils found at the quarry have actually been excavated by volunteer members of the public, said the Sentinel story.
“In a regular year we can take kids as young as five years old and give them a hands-on learning experience to experience science, how it works and because it is an active research site, they aren’t just playing in a sand pit. They are learning the real process and we’re reporting all the data,” McHugh said.
Dinosaurs have, since they were first discovered, captivated children and adults alike. For younger, future paleontologists, McHugh said they should remain curious and always keep learning through books and documentaries. “Paleontology and dinosaurs are one of the real magic gems of science,” McHugh said. “Everybody at some time in their life is interested in dinosaurs. Some people grow out of it and others never do.”