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DIG THIS: NKU students help excavate first-ever dinosaur find

Understanding the past allows us to observe the present and predict the future.”

By Kelsey Bungenstock
Marketing & Communications Intern

Every dream starts out small. When James Ruehlman was a child, he loved to play with his box of jumbled-up LEGO pieces, trying to figure out which were supposed to go where. Years later, he found himself in a similar situation.

This time, instead of dealing with plastic toy pieces, Ruehlman and five other students from NKU went back to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

And the students made a larger-than-life discovery.

From July 27 to Aug. 10, Dr. Janet Bertog, a paleontologist with the Department of Physics, Geology and Engineering Technology, took six Northern Kentucky students to the deserts of Utah to participate in their annual paleontological dig, searching for bones from Jurassic dinosaurs. Each summer, Bertog takes students of all skill levels (majors or non-majors) on the expedition to the Jurassic Morrison Formation, which has unveiled several dinosaurs and other animals from 160 million years ago.

“Students get the experience of doing field work, and learning the techniques that we use at an excavation,” Bertog said.

The intention of the study was to preserve dinosaur bones that were concentrated in a single area – a lake – and determine why they were there. Their greatest discovery was yet to come, as they would uncover rare bones from a Barosaurus.

Finding the remains of a Barosaurus is a rare feat. An 85-foot-long, plant-eating dinosaur that lived 140 million years ago, the Barosaurus weighed in at about 20 metric tons and a full skeleton has never been found. Enter Bertog and her students.

A skull was found in 2004, before NKU started working with the site. The jaw was found and collected by NKU students in 2011 and 2012. The NKU students continued to uncover both parts of the specimen this summer, and most importantly, were able to determine they did, in fact, belong to the Barosaurus due to their position near the vertebrae.

According to Bertog, the largest vertebrae that was removed this year was found four years ago by NKU and other students from Marietta College, and was collected this year by the NKU students.

“Our most significant achievement this summer was removing that (four-foot-tall) vertebrae, which we knew was there but have not been able to remove until this year,” Bertog said. “We had an amazing group this year that worked very hard and did a great job.” 

However, excavating a dinosaur is no walk in the park.

“Teamwork was vital after we realized just how difficult it was going to be to get an 800-pound piece of rock and dorsal vertebrae from the Barosaurus into the truck,” Ruehlman said.

Along the way, the students learned about excavation, and the materials uncovered are used for various research projects conducted by other students, with the supervision of a professor.

“We learned how instrumental the whole process actually is. It’s not like the Jurassic Park movies where they find perfectly preserved fossils,” Ruehlman stated.

One of the major benefits to the experience was entering a completely different world, the students said. Leaving the Northern Kentucky area for an expedition in a desert on the other side of the country was a definite culture shock, but it was also part of what made the dig so worthwhile.

“It’s a very different world out there,” Bertog said. “We form our own little community for the two weeks that we’re out there.”

Though all of the students who attended this year were geology majors, the dig has always been open to all majors. Bertog noted that the expedition was ‘beneficial to undeclared freshmen and sophomores’ that had interests in geology and paleontology.

Ruehlman said he took two lessons from his experience.

“Understanding the past allows us to observe the present and predict the future,” he said. “And if there’s one lesson to be learned about going to the desert, it’s that you cannot forget the chapstick.”