Diggin’ for dinosaur bones

Michael Wood, left, of Clovis and son Parker, 14, right, work under the supervision of museum curator Axel Hungerbuehler as the group encases a fossil specimen with plaster prior to moving it to the museum laboratory. (Courtesy photo)

Ryan Lengerich: CNJ staff writer

It didn’t look like much.

Michael Wood dug and scraped at the Quay County soil. He searched for bones — prehistoric bones — though he wasn’t sure exactly what they looked like.

And then he saw something embedded in a whiskey bottle-sized boulder.

“I’m looking at this and I really don’t know what it is so I call the paleontologist over and he goes berserk, like it was a fantastic find,” the 54-year-old Clovis dentist said.

Axel Hungerbuehler, a Ph.D natural science instructor and curator at the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum made his way to Wood’s find.

“He was excited, this guy looked like the Tasmanian Devil running up and down that hill trying to find some more,” Wood said.

Hungerbuehler identified the remain as part of snout of a phytosaur, a crocodile-like reptile that lived about 200 million years ago.

Wood, his son and four others made up the first private group to undergo a customized dinosaur dig at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari.

The new program allows private groups and families to earn three college credits for a five-day classroom and field-digging experience under Hungerbuehler’s instruction.
• • •
Teresa Allsup and her two boys, Ian, 10, and Dwayne, 15, were returning to Clovis from their ranch in Las Vegas, N.M., when she said a stop in Tucumcari was in order. She had never visited the dinosaur museum and had more than a passing interest in dinosaurs — her mother has an archaeology degree.

It was there she met Hungerbuehler and museum director Craig Currell. She showed interest in going on a dig. Currell said he could make it happen.

Students have excavated in the area, but community college president Phillip O. Barry said he had not considered private digs.

Barry said the new program allows for 10 to 15 people to participate. There is no age requirement, though children under 15 pass an adult basic education test to register.

The five-day class counts for three college credits or can be audited. The price for digging up history is $265 for in-state students and $349 for out-of-state students.

Barry plans to market the program throughout the five-state area to families looking for an unusual experience.

“We think it provides a new opportunity because you see more and more families trying to find an adventure-related vacation,” Barry said. “Whether it is hiking in the Grand Canyon or rafting down the Colorado — doing a family dinosaur dig together is an interest young children may have and we are excited about that.”

All significant remains found during digs are cataloged, prepped and displayed in the dinosaur museum. The museum is owned by the college and is an extension of the paleontology department.

Open since May 2000, the museum has had more than 13,000 visitors this year, Currell said.
• • •
The program begins in the classroom, and Allsup, who brought her two sons and their teacher along for the dig, said that was the easy part.

The digs began at 8 a.m. and lasted until about 5 p.m., she said. The brutal July sun beat down each day on the students carrying backpacks, tools and water. Sunscreen was a necessity.

“It’s hard work,” Allsup said. “But when you start finding things you don’t think about the heat.”

On day two, Allsup said she found remains of a prehistoric lungfish embedded in the red rock.

“I’m on a cliff and my sons and Dr. Wood and his son, they were telling me jokes, and I dug this thing up and the paleontologist came back and said ‘whoa,’” Allsup said. “When you do find something it doesn’t matter how small, it is exciting.”

Though she already owns natural science and liberal arts degrees, the experience has inspired Allsup to pursue a paleontology degree at Mesalands. She is also interning at the college under Hungerbuehler.

Allsup said the course may be more productive for older children with an interest in dinosaurs. Her sons, she said, lost interest late in the course and the heat beat down and days became longer.

“The kids want to go out and find some giant head with teeth in it, and that is very rare,” she said. “My kids had higher expectations but they did find things and it was good for them.”
• • •
Currell called eastern New Mexico a “treasure chest of dinosaurs.”

The college depends on help from private land owners to offer up digging space.

“We’re very fortunate in that the area ranchers allow us to go on their property,” he said.

While private land is used, he is cautious about divulging exact locations where digs take place.

“If we tell you we have to kill you,” he said, admitting only that the Allsups’ private dig happened within a 12-mile radius of Tucumcari. “We keep those locations very, very quite.”
Currell all but promises those in the program they will find something.

“We’ve never struck out,” he said.

Allsup learned quickly the rules of paleontology.

“You don’t ever divulge the who, what, when, why and how,” Allsup said, clenching a dinosaur egg she found on her dig.

“It is ethics. You just don’t do that.”