Dino dentistry extracts paleo story from public land

Story by David Hercher, Public Affairs Specialist, BLM Utah

Katja Knoll, a paleontology physical science technician with the Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, recovers fossils and equipment from a site where larger finds were transported by helicopter for further research, October 29, 2020. BLM Photo by Christian Venhuizen

rand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has long been a source for significant dinosaur discoveries in southern Utah.

Teeth and other fossils discovered from a quarry on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. BLM photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Titus

Assisted by museum partners, selfless and dedicated volunteers, and the BLMs very own fire aviation program, the BLM has recovered thousands of important fossil specimens from the Kaiparowits Plateau region over the last 20 years. And while the skeletons of tyrannosaurs, sea turtles, and crocodiles are all inarguably thrilling discoveries, more recently scientists from the University of Arkansas, University of Texas, and the Bureau of Land Management’s Paria River District announced a lesser-known, but equally exciting discovery — the climate and behavioral information locked inside genuine 72.5–76.6-million-year-old dinosaur tooth enamel.

Tooth enamel? Yes, tooth enamel.

On January 12, 2021, the research team published their able isotope research based on specimens from the Rainbows and Unicorns Quarry, inside the one-million-acre treasure trove of scientific opportunity that is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The paper is available online at https://doi.org/10.1144/SP507-2020-52.

A U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighter assigned to the Bureau of Land Management’s Moki Helitak examines a fossil found in the BLM’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, October 29, 2020. BLM Photo by Christian Venhuizen

Dr. Alan Titus, Paleontologist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Paria River District, said “It may not be as sexy as digging a giant T-rex out of the ground, but to the scientist trying to reconstruct the past, this is pure gold. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get the Oxygen and Carbon molecules inside fossil teeth and bones to tell such important stories about the deep past. You need patience, attention to detail, and a million-dollar mass spectrometer. Fortunately, the BLM’s partners at the University of Arkansas have all three.”

Images are available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/blmutah/albums.

For additional information about visitor services available at GSENM, please visit the GSENM visitor center webpage at https://www.blm.gov/learn/interpretive-centers/GSENM_VisitorCenters.

The BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States, and approximately 30 percent of the Nation’s minerals.