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Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry

The Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry is a dinosaur bonebed located on federal land, administered by the Bureau of Land Management northwest of the town of Hanksville, in south-central Utah and is one of the largest dinosaur quarries in the United States. The quarry is massive in extent with a bone-bearing layer extending for a minimum of 1km to the northeast. As of the summer of 2017, the deposit preserves the remains of a minimum of 15 different dinosaurs that includes a high diversity of taxa. Most prevalent among the fossils are those of the longneck sauropod dinosaurs, primarily Diplodocus. Three other species of sauropod are known from the quarry and include Apatosaurus, Barosarus, and Camarasaurus. The theropod dinosaur, Allosaurus, has been found as well as the small ornithopod Dryosaurus and the armored dinosaur, Mymoorapelta. Some material may be referable to Stegosaurus; however, further examination is needed to be certain.

In June of 2007, a small crew from the Burpee Museum, led by former Curator of Earth Sciences, Michael Henderson, and Collections Manager, Scott Williams, traveled to southern Utah in search of fossils from the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation. Prior to this, Burpee had only led expeditions to the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana, where they were very successful, finding “Jane” a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex and “Homer” a sub-adult Triceratops.  Wanting to expand their research opportunities, they were directed to the Hanksville area by Utah state paleontologist Dr. Jim Kirkland. Dr. Kirkland told Henderson and Williams that this region has vast exposures of Morrison Formation and that no institutions were currently working in the area. After a few days of prospecting, with little to show, the crew contacted Buzz Rackow, a geologist for the Bureau of Land Management. Buzz informed them of an area northwest of town where “rock hounds” have found bone fragments eroding out of the hills for 20+ years, however no paleontology crews had ever gone to assess the site. The following day he drove the crew to the site and immediately upon their arrival, they found bone “float” littering the surface. As the group further explored the exposures, they discovered several bones coming out of the ground. They dug around a few, but ended up burying them to protect them until the following summer.

The inaugural trip for the volunteer program, now called “Jurassic Journey”, began in the summer of 2008 when Burpee Museum partnered with Dr. Matthew Bonnan of Western Illinois University. Dr. Bonnan is a sauropod expert who was a faculty member in the Department of Biology and was asked to join the project due to his expertise. Dr. Bonnan brought a group of students with him from WIU to assist with the dig. He remained on the project until 2013, when Dr. Michael D’Emic, another sauropod expert from Adelphi University, joined the team. Additionally, Mr. Steve Simpson, a geologist and instructor at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois and a member of the board of trustees for Burpee Museum, also brought student crews out to join in the dig as he has in Montana for many years prior.

While it was already known that there were several bones to be excavated from the previous year, the extent of the deposit was not realized until midway through the first week, when an HCC student wandered over to a hill where nobody was working. He soon discovered a large sauropod leg bone eroding from the hill and began excavating it. As he worked around the bone, he came across another leg bone just as large lying next to that. From this point on, the site began to surrender its fossils, bone by bone, and by the end of the first week there were “badger holes” scattering the site where new bones were being continually discovered. At the end of the first official field season, at the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, over 200 new bones had been discovered. Further exploration near the quarry lead to the discovery of large petrified logs, some reaching lengths of 20-30feet. Freshwater unionid bivalves (mussels) can also be found at the quarry as well as vertical structures that may be the preserved remnants of mammal burrows or tree root casts. Together, these fossils are representative of a preserved ecosystem located in the middle of the Utah desert. Burpee field crews have returned to the site every summer since and continued to find new discoveries. In total, over 1,000 bones have been removed from the quarry and just as many remain in the ground waiting to be uncovered.

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