He walks to the first outcrop, bends over, and picks up a handful of dinosaur femurs and tibiae. Jonathan walks to another outcrop and finds a fossil sticking out of the rock. Wow. This is easy, I think. Horner splits us all into teams before he heads out with Ron Loge, a doctor from Montana who came to donate medical equipment to the Mongolians as well as to help out on the dig. I’m teamed up with the MSU grad students Liz Freedman, Holly Woodward, and crew chief Nels Peterson. We are sent to a site half a mile across the scrubby desert from camp where they excavated five dinosaurs last year. This time of year the desert flowers are in bloom, and everyone’s allergies have kicked in. So with streaming eyes and noses and the whipping wind and blinding sun, we walk with our heads down looking for dinosaur bones.
Everything looks like a rock to me. I am miserable, can’t breathe or see, and feel useless when I literally bump into Ron as we both walk around the same hill from opposite directions. He carries a ziplock bag with loads of red and purple bones, and he is beaming with excitement. “Ron found bones,” I shout to the group. He agrees to share his dinosaur-hunting technique with me, as well as to give me some allergy pills.
He shows me where to search: in the wash of rocks at the bottom of a hill. The trick is to scan closely for small purple pieces that look a little different from the majority of rocks around them. Those are likely to be bones. Then, Ron explains, follow the wash up the hill and see if there are more bones. If there are fewer than three bones, it’s an isolate—a scattered remain, not of much use. Horner’s rule is, three or more associated bones constitute a skeleton.
Almost as soon as Ron explains his methods, I see a large purple bone. “Is this one?” I ask Ron. He whistles. “You found a hip bone.” My first dinosaur bone, and it’s a good one. We follow the wash up the hill, and there are some more bones farther up the hill. It qualifies as a skeleton! We mark the spot with an orange ribbon. Horner will mark it later with the Global Positioning System and tell us if it’s worth excavating.
Finding a bone changes everything. My nose stops running, my allergies disappear, the wind is suddenly cool, the sun not so blistering. Now my search takes on the obsession of all the paleos around me. I understand why they seem so oblivious to the conditions—dinosaur bones are all-consuming. We find bone after bone after bone. After a while, it’s like walking over cigarette butts on the streets of New York; smallish, purply dinosaur bones are everywhere. We literally trip over dinosaur bones wherever we walk.
It’s so exciting that everyone stays out hunting for bones the first night until well after 7, when the sun starts to go down. This experience today really makes me understand scientists better. They are driven every day by curiosity and the thrill of discovery, not by fame or glory. After all, where is the glory in scuffling around the Gobi Desert in dirty clothes, blowing your nose and clutching pieces of rock?
Snapping the Big Picture
We spend several days at the spot where Horner's team dug up five Psittacosaurus skeletons last year. I imagined we’d find the dinosaur skeletons just sitting there in perfect position, but it’s not like that at all. You rarely find one perfectly preserved, and excavation is painstaking work.
Overall, though, it is pleasant to sit on a hill with a chisel and paintbrush, focusing on the rock in front of you, then brushing to see if there is a bone, then chipping off more rock and brushing and chipping and brushing and chipping. The work is intensely meditative—very Chop Wood, Carry Water. We end up disassembling an entire 10-foot hill with basically a screwdriver and a dental pick, and guess what? There are no dinosaurs in this hill.
We move to another site, a dried lake bed, and start peeling shale off the edge of a cliff. Horner comes by and yells at everyone: “You’re doing it like commercial guys, not scientists. We’re scientists! The idea is to get a picture of the ecology and not just dig off the edge.” Horner wants us to look for anything that might have flown and fallen into the lake, especially feathers. Chinese researchers found a feathered dinosaur near here last year. As Jonathan puts it, “If the Psittacosaurus had feathers, we’d have a real party!”