An unlikely crew helps a private land fossil find a good home
“They tend to die like an old cow in a draw,” Row Manuel says from the back seat. I’m riding shotgun next to Cliff, her husband, who points out the window and flips pages in the three-ring binder in my lap as he drives. Behind us purple and grey storm clouds swirl around the Big Horn Mountains. We’re following Shell Creek, which, as it cuts into the bedrock, takes us deeper and deeper back in time. We’re looking for dinosaurs.
Cliff and Row retired to Shell, Wyoming, Row’s birthplace, in 1987. Now they work to connect the paleontological community here. Through their non-profit, Bighorn Basin Geoscience Center, they advocate for the proper study, conservation, and display of fossils, especially those found on private land. Today, they’ve whisked me into their silver Four Runner for a tour of the hills.
We pass cows dotting winter-brown fields. The road cuts through earth that changes from bright red to salmon to orange to black. Shell is “a dinosaur wonderland,” according to Cliff. The Morrison Formation, late Jurassic sedimentary rock known for abundant dinosaur fossils, runs through here. Native American petroglyphs appear to depict dinosaur footprints. Ranchers use dinosaur bones as door stops. Elsewhere, a 20 percent complete fossil is a good find, but here many are 70 to 90 percent complete. One team of paleontologists found a Stegosaurus underneath a virtually complete Apatosaurus. Research institutions such as the Smithsonian, Dartmouth, and Iowa State send teams of paleontologists out to fill Shell’s campgrounds, and Cliff and Row’s guest house, every summer.
When the sun begins to set, Row wants to get home to guide the wild turkeys towards their roost, her nightly ritual. “Ok, ok,” Cliff says, “we won’t go far, so you can get back to take care of your little dinosaurs.” But first, he can’t resist driving up the pass to show me evidence of geologic uplift.
In a dinosaur wonderland like Shell, as with any fossil-rich area of the West, there is no real rhyme or reason as to where in the patchwork of public and private land an important fossil might lie and thus who it belongs to. Whereas regulations protect public lands fossils, private land fossils belong to the landowners, who can do whatever they wish with the bones. Depending upon on which side of the fence a fossil is found, its fate could turn out very differently.
Private land fossils are in danger of being broken, improperly handled, sold at auction, or otherwise lost to science and the public. But Cliff and Row know another outcome is possible as well. The story of one of Shell’s most famous dinosaurs and the unlikely cast of characters who supported her along the way proves private land in Wyoming isn’t such a bad place for a fossil to be.
Anyone who wants to extract a fossil from public lands must apply for a permit under the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009. The act requires that qualified scientists and paleontologists carefully extract, document, and study the fossil before sending it to an approved museum or repository. An especially flashy specimen (say, a T. rex) might be made visible to the public, but most will likely be packed up and stored, available only to professionals.
“If it’s worthy enough to excavate, it’s already got a home in a museum,” Cliff explains. “The trail of ownership starts right then.” In contrast, the fate of a fossil extracted from private land is much less certain.
In 1997, after a series of ownership disputes, a private landowner sold a T. rex named Sue at auction for $8.3 million dollars, the highest amount ever paid for a fossil. According to Kelli Trujillo, a consultant with Uinta Paleontological Consultants, “Sue really shook things up.”
In the wake of Sue’s sale, the fossil market boomed. Landowners dreamed about striking it rich on a good dinosaur like Sue, and commercial bone collectors opened up shop on private property. For scientists and paleontologists, this was bad news.
The problems begin with excavation. “You better know how to collect them,” Row told me seriously. “Sometimes there’s three stories of dirt on bones and when you dig down it releases the pressure and they break.”
The context is also at stake during excavation. How a dinosaur rests in the ground can tell us about the ecosystem complexities at that time. The surrounding geology indicates weather trends and climate. Even a small clue like a leaf can contribute to scientific understanding.
Then, whether the fossil goes to a private collection or public repository makes a difference. Many paleontological journals won’t publish conclusions drawn from privately held specimens, since other researchers may not have access to confirm the findings.
Cliff and Row are passionate about preserving fossils’ context. They seem to always know what’s going on at the local dig sites, and are often the first to hear of a major find. When that happens, they help the fossil find its way toward scientific and public benefit, as they did after an amateur bone digger made an important discovery.
Late in the summer of 2003, Bob Simon, a retired Chevron Geologist from Virginia, was scraping at the dry hills of the Red Canyon Ranch outside Shell with his track hoe, looking for bones. Simon, who loved dinosaurs as a kid, calls himself a dinosaur hunter, “a big game hunter without the guns.” One evening he walked up a gulley and saw bones.
“It’s not one of those things where you go out there one day and, ‘Oh my god, there’s a full dinosaur,’” Simon said. For five years he’d been finding all sorts of “disarticulated, individual, broken bones from multiple species jumbled together,” what Cliff would call “onsey twosey bones.” So that evening, he had no way of knowing yet what he’d discovered, or just how valuable it would be.
After digging fossils on a vacation in Wyoming, he’d quit his job as a geologist at Chevron to start an educational fossil company. He wanted to set up shop in the Morrison Formation, so he overlaid property maps on geology maps. “Then I began pounding on doors,” he said. He started leasing land on Red Canyon Ranch to dig fossils in 1999.
“In my wildest dreams I hoped to find a dinosaur,” Simon said. He ran a pay-to-dig site where vacationers could, for a little fee, look for bones alongside him. If he deemed it scientifically insignificant, he’d let people take a bone shard or fossilized shell home. Some pieces he’d clean up and sell on his website to cover expenses, and others he’d donate to museums.
Usually he worked alone, dodging scorpions and rattlesnakes. The temperature often exceeded 100 degrees, but “it felt like spring” to Simon who was used to East Coast humidity. It was the end of the digging season when Simon found the bones sticking out of the gulley. He scraped out a “small little tail section” to take back home to Virginia, and covered the exposed patch of dirt. It would have to wait until the next year.
That winter a tropical storm came up the coast and wiped out power for ten days, forcing Simon to abandon power equipment for hand tools to pick away at the tail section. A visiting paleontologist friend suggested it might be from a Stegosaurus.
When Simon returned to the dig site at Red Canyon Ranch the following spring he and a volunteer crew found tail spikes. Then back plates. Simon’s luck had turned. He did in fact have a Stegosaurus on his hands and he needed some help.
Cliff knew just where to find it. He calls Swiss paleontologist Kirby Siber and his crew “hellacious paleontologists,” meaning some of the best in the world. Siber and his crew had recently lost their gig digging in the Howe Quarry on private land near Shell. Cliff found them lounging around the KOA in Greybull and sent Siber to the ranch to chat with Simon. By the end of the day, the retired oilman, the Swiss digger, and the rancher worked out an agreement.
Siber had two teams of twelve experienced diggers. The dig site buzzed from sun-up to sun-down with tools and chatter. “Ninety percent of the time I couldn’t understand a thing anyone was saying,” Simon told me. German, French, and Swiss contributed to the din of the dusty dig site. Some digs take years, but Siber’s crew got the Stegosaurus, named Sarah after the rancher’s daughter, out of the ground in just a month. It helped that “she was all curled up,” Simon said.
Working with professional paleontologists turned out to be essential. “You have to photograph everything. You measure everything. You grid everything,” Simon said. “We have videotaped a number of things for some dinosaurs. You take samples of the rocks around it because a dinosaur is just one piece of the puzzle.”
The crew encased the bones and surrounding hard rock matrix in plaster and flew them to Siber’s museum in Switzerland. Specialists cleaned the bones and sent them back to South Dakota where the Black Hills Institute made molds of the skeleton. You can buy a cast of Sarah through their website for $65,000. “I’d love to have one,” Simon said, “but I can’t afford it.”
Sarah went into storage for a few years until her cast, on display at the 2012 Tucson Gem and Mineral show, caught the attention of the London Museum of Natural History’s lead dinosaur researcher. The museum bought the real fossil—virtually complete save for a missing back plate, one front leg, and a piece of jaw—for an undisclosed price. (Cliff surmised that she probably “carried a premium,” and yet likely didn’t come close to Sue.) And so, from a Wyoming ranch, to Switzerland, back to the US, Sarah’s fate was sealed: she made her last transoceanic voyage to her forever home. She also got a new name, Sophie, after a major benefactor’s daughter.
Researchers at the London Museum of Natural History created a virtual model and computer simulation of Sophie using laser surface scans and computerized tomography scans. She answered questions about what Stegosauruses ate and how they walked. Her tangerine-sized brain is bigger than the originally hypothesized walnut, but scientists maintain a belief that she was not very intelligent. Her “feeble teeth” passed large amounts of plant matter to her “huge fermentation pit” of a stomach, as described in UK newspapers. She was middle-aged and the size of a rhino when she died. Oddly, “her” sex remains unknown.
Right inside one of the London Museum’s main entrances, Sophie joined Dippy the Diplodocus who has greeted museum goers since 1905. The curators deliberated over how to position her. “We have gone for an alert pose,” a member of the museum staff said. “It’s looking at something. It might have just spotted a predator.” Her tiny head is turned and her tail gently flicks. Her mouth is open slightly. Red and blue lights cast a flattering light on her, mid-stride, walking across a white runway.
Simon brims with pride about his “wildest dream” dinosaur living in the London Museum. He is thrilled with her contributions to research as well as the fact that she is accessible to the public. “She found a good home,” he said. Sophie mapped a blueprint for how fossils extracted from private land can benefit the local economy, science, and education.
She gets the best of both worlds: behind-the-scenes pampering and prominent display. Her contributions are twofold, too. Not only has she advanced scientific understanding, but she entertains, awes, and educates hundreds of visitors who come to the London Museum every day.
Although Simon has been criticized for selling fossils online, the fact that he has made a couple of major fossil finds speaks to the importance of amateur diggers working on private land. And it’s not just him. The recently published book Wyoming’s Dinosaur Discoveries chronicles other private land examples with happy endings.
I asked Simon how things would have turned out differently if Sophie had been found on public land instead of private. “She probably would have wound up in a museum but she would probably still be in storage,” he started, then began again. “If she were on public land, she wouldn’t have been found.”
Cliff’s role was important, too. His connections in the paleontology world mean he can match private lands fossils with qualified diggers, setting them on a path to a home in a museum. He and Row also lead seminars for Wyoming teachers who take advanced earth sciences education back to classrooms across the state. “There’s mutual benefit for us and them,” Cliff said, speaking of teachers, students, fossil hunters like Simon, the public, and even landowners. Without private land and carefully cultivated relationships, he added, “I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Back at Cliff and Row’s house after our dinosaur drive, the two show me their fossil collection. They interrupt each other, excitedly setting one tannish lump in my hand after another: ammonite mollusk, trilobite, and the eggshell of an Allosaurus with little ribs embedded in the curved interior.
Cliff shows me a skull that looks like an elongated football. It’s a cast of Victoria, a Stegosaurus found in the Howe Quarry, that Siber gifted to Cliff and Row. He’s pointing out her pumpkinseed-sized teeth when we look up to see Row outside, holding a broom, walking briskly behind her flock of little dinosaurs.
By Carly Fraysier
Carly Fraysier is the 2015/16 Editorial Fellow at Western Confluence magazine. She is studying creative nonfiction writing and environment and natural resources at the University of Wyoming.
Cliff and Row Manuel are co-founders of the non-profit Bighorn Basin Geoscience Center and serve as coordinators and facilitators for its educational arm, Geoscience Adventures.