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Walls of bones

A stegosaurus stares into the desert hills outside the visitor center at Dinosaur National Monument.

It’s a replica, of course, made of fiberglass, and created originally for Sinclair Oil’s Dinoland exhibit at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York.

It seems appropriate that this stately fake should live out its retirement in northeast Utah, where stegosauri once roamed. Yet the statue also seems out of place, because Dinosaur National Monument — home to the richest quarry of dinosaur bones in the world — specializes in the real thing, not amusement park fabrications.

Paleontologist Earl Douglass, working for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, came to this remote corner of Utah in 1909. And, man, did he strike it big when he started chipping into a cliff of Morrison Formation rock from 149 million years ago.

Bones from just this one cliff were reconstructed into complete skeletons that now grace museum halls throughout the United States.

At the visitor center, a poster-size photo of Douglass shows him standing beside the tailbones of an apatosaurus, his first big discovery. He is trying his best to look professorial, but the upturned edges of his mouth imply his urge to smile.

In all, the remains of some 500 late-Jurassic dinosaurs, representing 10 species, came to rest here, an assortment of meat eaters and grazers, some bulky and some compact.

The plated stegosaurus wins the prize for best accessories, but it’s impossible not to love, say, the massive barosaurus and diplodocus, each featuring a stocky torso between an incredibly long tail and neck.

Scientists left about 1,500 bones embedded in the rock, and a shuttle now takes folks from the visitor center up to the quarry, enclosed within an exhibit hall. It’s a five-minute commute that leaves one’s hands free to snap pictures of the starkly beautiful landscape, dominated by the two halves of whitish Weber sandstone known as Split Mountain.

My wife and I let out simultaneous “wows” upon entering the hall and seeing the so-called Wall of Bones in front of us. We had no idea what we were looking at, exactly. Couldn’t tell a tibia from a fibula or a neck bone among the jumble of dinosaur remains.

But it was marvelous, just the same, to be gazing at evidence of life from the unfathomable past.

For a dollar, we purchased a quarry guide, its diagrams intended to help viewers identify the myriad of puzzle pieces.

We’re certain we located the section of wall featuring most of a stegosaurus skeleton. Beyond that, we were in doubt.

It made us appreciate the paleontologists who painstakingly excavated the site — it took decades, by the way — and figured out what bones were here, and how they connected.

Putting an entire skeleton together would require, it seems, as much art and intuition as science and glue. Not to mention huge amounts of saintly patience.

The Wall of Bones contains just one skull, of a camarasaurus. Consulting the diagrams, my wife and I pointed to where it should have been. How come it wasn’t there?

Then we noticed the fine print on page 11: “This skull is tilted in a way that makes it hard to see from the quarry viewing platform.”

Well, at least we had been on the right track.

Minutes later, I saw, halfway up the wall, something tubular with something flap-like connected to it. Could it possibly be a fossilized stingray among the array of dinosaur parts?

The ranger on duty aimed her laser pen at the ancient chunk in question. “That’s a cervical vertebra of a barosaurus,” she informed me.

So much for my paleontology skills.

We hit Dinosaur Monument near the end of a long road trip, our schedule leaving no time for lingering. Besides the quarry, we took in only a few points of interest along the Cub Creek auto tour, then headed out.

We easily could have spent days enjoying the river canyons, mountains, archaeological sites and deep night skies of this 210,844-acre wonderland. This place would be spectacular even without the Jurassic angle.

Then again, who could resist the allure of the Wall of Bones and its invitation to test one’s aptitude for paleontology? My grade: C, with credit for effort and enthusiasm.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

Stegosaurus bones. Photo by Paul Hadella
Camarasaurus bones. Photo by Paul Hadella