With funds for scientific research drying up, dinosaur study is now making a call for the nerd inside all of us.
Millions of years ago, on a mud flat somewhere in Cretaceous Utah, a group of Utahraptors made a grave mistake: They tried to hunt near quicksand. The pack’s poor fortune has given modern paleontologists an opportunity to decode the giant raptor — its appearance, growth and behavior — but only if they can raise the money.
Enter “The Utahraptor Project,” started on GoFundMe last year with a $100,000 goal. It offers backers access to a field worker’s blog, a live “Raptor Cam” and digital models of the find put together through the process of photogrammetry. While it is far from reaching its goal, the team is optimistic.
“Once we get this up and running, with all the cameras and gizmos to record the action on a micro and macro level,” said Scott Madsen, a fossil preparator, “I think we can give the public a good show for their money.”
Utahraptor, 23 feet long and weighing more than 1 ton, was one of the largest dromaeosaurs — feathered, sickle-clawed dinosaurs closely related to birds. Since its discovery in 1991, it has been the subject of a popular novel, assorted documentaries and tie-in toys from “Jurassic Park.”
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But for all its fame, the predator has been known primarily from only a few remains. That changed in 2001, when a geology student found a leg bone emerging from a hillside in the Cedar Mountain formation in eastern Utah.
Over 12 field seasons, a team of paleontologists with the Utah Geological Survey found an ever-expanding tangle of bones in the 126-million-year-old rock.
When the final slab of sandstone was removed in 2014, said Jim Kirkland, Utah state paleontologist, it weighed 9 tons and contained the skeletons of a herbivorous dinosaur, a 16-foot adult Utahraptor, four juveniles and a recent hatchling.
The block proved too heavy for the lab at the University of Utah, and in 2015 ended up on reinforced floors at the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point.
Madsen, then an employee of the Utah Geological Survey with experience preparing fossils at Dinosaur National Monument, began the long process of cleaning the bones.
Two months later, he had been laid off: The agency’s budget, which is partly funded by the proceeds from drilling on state land, was hit hard by the 2014 plunge in oil prices. There wasn’t any money to pay him.
Without Madsen, the Utahraptor block sat in limbo. Attempts to find outside funding didn’t go well, Kirkland said: The Museum of Ancient Life declined to help raise money for the block over concerns it would conflict with the museum’s own fundraising efforts.
With attempts to get corporate sponsors coming to nothing, Madsen suggested a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the setup and hours of labor needed to properly document the fossils.
Paleontologists have turned to crowdfunding before, though usually only for a few thousand dollars at most, Madsen said. The size of the block required a more ambitious funding push.
The Utahraptor Project has attracted interest from dinosaur enthusiasts on social media and paleontology blogs.
But while donations ranging from $5 to $1,500 have trickled in, the campaign has raised only $15,150 over the past 10 months. That is enough to buy some basic tools and begin work, Madsen said, but not enough for the team’s more ambitious goals.
Madsen has yet to be paid for his efforts. “I’m in a personally awkward place doing this crowdfunding thing, not least of which because I’m asking for money to pay myself for this work.”
The contents of the block already offer some intriguing possibilities, Kirkland said. They represent the remains of predators that stumbled into quicksand while pursuing trapped prey, one of the first such cases in the fossil record.
Kirkland wants to determine whether each of the seven animals arrived at different times, or whether a single pack was buried at once.
If the bones are interlaced, or show signs of equivalent amounts of weathering, that would be good evidence for a rich family life for Utahraptor.
The exposed bones also suggest that Utahraptor looked quite different from previous projections. While the juveniles are long and lanky in the classic raptor mold, the adult appears to have packed on mass to deal with bigger prey.
“The front end of the jaw is unlike any other meat-eating dinosaur I’ve ever seen,” Kirkland said. “It’s not just a blown-up Velociraptor … This thing is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or a Sherman tank.”
Other paleontologists are watching the project with interest.
“We already know there are many bones in this block which fill in the anatomy of Utahraptor, but there are probably plenty more surprises in there,” said Tom Holtz, a University of Maryland paleontologist specializing in predatory dinosaurs. “We won’t know until the lab has worked its way through the rock.”
Plans for the campaign include a panel at the Salt Lake Comic Con next month, said B.J. Nicholls, the social media coordinator for the project. Organizers hope the publicity will help drive donations; the search for corporate sponsors continues as well.
For Kirkland, Utahraptor is part of his legacy: He named the species and has long been associated with it. For years, he has dreamed of a state park with the Utahraptor block as its centerpiece. But he will settle for making sure the find is treated properly before he retires.
“We can’t do this over again,” he said. “We may never find another site like this. I’d rather let it sit than not do it with the very best data collection and the finest preparators we can have work on it.”
“We worked to get this block down the hill for 10 years,” he added. “We can’t screw it up.”