Dinosaur National Monument is filled with rabbits.
I knew this already, watching them hop through the back yard of the bunkhouse, and the front yard, and the road, and all the other back yards in the employee housing area, but I did not fully grasp the extent of the bunny boom until I went looking for marmots.
I’d seen one of the fire-extinguisher sized rodents back on the Fossil Discovery trail that winds along the base of the Frontier Sandstone ridge behind our neighborhood. On Sunday morning, I took my camera on a quest to find more. No marmots were in sight, but I lost count of the rabbits fast. They hopped out of my path reluctantly, knowing that they were the new rulers of the ridge, safe in the comfort of numbers. Every sagebrush seemed to have at least one in its shade, and every patch of green served a long-eared customer. I stopped photographing them after a few hundred feet; it felt like shooting pigeons would have in downtown San Francisco.
Then I glanced over at the row of maintenance sheds across the road from the trail. Marmot. Right there all along. I tried to sneak up on it but just then a truck drove by and scared it off into a dark hole under the shed.
No worries: there were more. It seemed like every shed had a marmot living under it. I shot them all. Then I went on with my week.
Monday began with a drive through the high, hilly country just over the Colorado border, near the monument entrance east of the town of Dinosaur. My fellow GIPs (Geoscientists-in-the-Parks) and I had a government vehicle for the day, and our destination, on order of our leader and park paleontologist Dan Chure, was Harper’s Corner. The eponymous road ended in a small parking area at the rim of a canyon that could have hid a dwarf planet or two. We trekked into the junipers to see what this much-hyped trail had to offer.
We trekked into the junipers to see what this much-hyped trail had to offer.
The high elevation was home to slightly different fauna than we were used to in the employee housing area. The trees were taller and filled with clicking cicadas, whose chorus made me think of a creepy Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where the crew gets violated by transdimensional aliens. After that, part of my brain started imagining I was on an away mission… until the rabbit showed up and I forgot all about Star Trek.
It was a tiny thing and I wondered if it was a baby desert cottontail or a pygmy rabbit, which my field guide insists live in Utah. Marie pointed it out. Hiding under a juniper, scratching behind an ear with a big fluffy foot, I lost all the resistance I’d built up to rabbits the day before and gave in, shooting it until my hiking partners started talking excitedly about something up ahead.
When I looked up, the first thing I noticed was a rail. The second thing I noticed was the gaping void beyond it. We had arrived at Harper’s Corner.
Being three geology students, we immediately tried to decipher the ancient earth processes we ogled. The rock layers to the east of us looked like someone had tried to pull them up out of the ground, bending them in a town-sized curve toward the sky before snapping them and dropping the remainder next to the distorted, broken end.
To the right of the fault, we saw Steamboat Rock, a towering monument of yellow Weber Sandstone that from the height of Harper’s Corner seemed deceptively small. We only realized the scale of what we were looking at when two river rafts floated around the bend down the Green River, like minuscule leaves on a miniature stream.
We sat at the end of the railed area for lunch, on Round Valley limestone, admiring the tiny stacked donuts of crinoid fossils that were strewn between red chert globs. Hiking back to the car, we gazed back at the winding Green River and looked forward to our upcoming river trip with the Weed Warriors.
I met one of the Weed Warriors the next day at the all-employee meeting. It was a non-stop morning and afternoon of lectures raging from fire extinguisher use (pull, aim, squeeze, sweep), to hantavirus prevention (use a 10% bleach solution on any mouse remains or nests), to uniform codes (brown socks preferred). Lunch was hosted by the full-time employees, who grilled hamburgers, brought in salads and chips, and even made brownies. I sat with Marie across from Dan Chure, and he introduced us to Peter Williams, Weed Warrior. He gave us the low-down on what we needed for the river, clearing up some confusion on just how concerned about hypothermia we should be (very). When I mentioned my camera, he asked what kind it was and nodded knowingly when I said it was a mirrorless. He offered to let me borrow a Pelican box to store it in on the boat for easy access. I didn’t tell him that I had no idea what a Pelican box was.
It was a non-stop morning and afternoon of lectures raging from fire extinguisher use (pull, aim, squeeze, sweep), to hantavirus prevention (use a 10% bleach solution on any mouse remains or nests), to uniform codes (brown socks preferred).
Much archiving progress had been made as the week winded down, and we had to get creative scanning large size documents. By Thursday we had extra bright lights and large plexiglass sheets set up for scanning larger items, like a poster of some early plans for the quarry that involved excavating all the bones, articulating the skeletons, and putting up a display that was deemed to be more understandable by the public than jumbled fossils. Those of us scanning the poster were glad that this plan failed. Dinosaur National Monument is one of the few places in the world where the public can actually see how the bones are preserved in the rock and get a sense of the work it takes to remove them from solid stone. The urge to excavate them isn’t gone–it’s being used to create new paleontologists.
That night, our last before hitting the river, we had another talk series to attend. This time there was no mention of hantavirus or fire extinguishers: it was a group from Cal Tech doing a talk series in Vernal on evolutionary biology. Dan Chure introduced the basics of Dinosaur National Monument’s impressive paleontology and geology, as well as our digital quarry mapping project, and showed off some fossil replicas during the break. A crowd formed around his table, as crowds tend to do when tables are strewn with the skeletons of ancient monsters.
Marie and I stayed for the next speaker, Griffin Chure, who had been hyped up to us when we were invited to the talk by his parents, Dan Chure and his wife Lorraine.
The younger Chure exceeded the hype. His presentation made me feel like I could actually explain horizontal gene transfer to layfolk
The younger Chure exceeded the hype. His presentation made me feel like I could actually explain horizontal gene transfer to layfolk, which I suppose I’ll now have to attempt. Essentially, DNA isn’t just inherited. It can also be absorbed from random things in the environment, like viruses. So anyone can acquire new genetic traits at any time, if their cells happen to absorb some DNA they run into (or that gets injected into them). Then that DNA ostensibly becomes heritable. What does this mean for genetic evolution? I have no idea, but it certainly doesn’t make it any simpler. Griffin Chure seemingly shrugged off the intimidation of complexity like Green River water off a common merganser, and came up with a clever way to study how this horizontal gene transfer takes place in vivo, or in living cells in real time. He accomplished this by creating E. coli cells with glowing plasmids. Obviously. I left wishing I’d taken more biology classes.
The next morning, glowing plasmids fresh in our minds, we left for the river. And that was its own adventure.