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'Dino hunters' hit paydirt in southern Utah

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Standing in a desert in southern Utah with little vegetation visible for miles, it’s hard to imagine the area under your feet as swampland.

More surprising yet is that most of the fossil animal and plant species discovered in this area -- known as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument -- can't be found anywhere else in North America.

It is not a new idea that Utah was once on the shore of a warm, inland sea, part of an isolated island-continent known as Laramidia. But the dinosaurs and other animals and plants being found there – dating back 75 to 80 million years – have confirmed a new idea: that this lost ecosystem is distinct from those found farther north in rocks of the same age.

That is the topic for “Dino Hunters” – a feature article in the current issue of National Geographic Magazine.

The story traces the footsteps of paleontologists on the hunt for fossils in this remote part of southern Utah who were aided for the first time by helicopter support made possible by a grant from the National Geographic Committee for Research & Exploration. Researchers from the Natural History Museum of Utah, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management have been working in the Monument for almost 15 years, but have never before been able to access such remote parts of the area.

“For more than 14 years, the museum has been at work in Grand Staircase,” says Randy Irmis, curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah and assistant professor at the University of Utah. “The discoveries there – nine new named dinosaur species and counting – have revealed a whole new ecosystem that existed 75 to 80 million years ago and tell a different story about the end of the age of dinosaurs in Utah.”

Rather than geographic or other physical barriers between regions, it is thought that the distinct northern and southern faunas evolved in response to repeated changes in sea level and latitudinally differentiated climate zones. Simply put: different climate conditions may have supported different plant ecosystems that in turn sustained different kinds of animal life.

Luckily for 21st century fossil enthusiasts without ready access to the now high-and-dry swamps of southern Utah, many of the dinosaur finds are on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center at the University of Utah.

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