While real-life astronauts dream of finding fossils on Mars, make-believe astronauts are helping paleontologists find real-life dinosaur fossils amid a Mars-style landscape in Utah. And what fossils!
"Every time you go to excavate one bone, you come across three or four more," said Scott Williams, a paleontologist at the Burpee Museum of Natural History. If you look in the right place, the bones are widespfread enough to warm the heart of any "Jurassic World" fan.
The movie reference is particularly apt, because these bones come from the Jurassic Period, around 148 million years ago, when the giant Apatosaurus (a.k.a. Brontosaurus) and fearsome Allosaurus walked the earth.
The Red Planet twist enters the picture in 2002, just a year after "Jurassic Park III" came out. That's when the Mars Society, a nonprofit advocacy group, was conducting its first space mission simulation at the Mars Desert Research Station, a habitat erected in the desert near Hanksville, Utah. The volunteer crew, clad in mocked-up helmets and spacesuits, was in the midst of an expedition when Mars Society President Robert Zubrin spotted something otherworldly.
"I found something which really made my day — a bone of stone," Zubrin wrote in his logbook at the time. "It's the size of a coffee mug, and the indentation for the joint is clearly visible. The material I found it in was Jurassic, so my guess is that it's a dinosaur."
Because the discovery was made on federally managed land, that first fossil was reported to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, as were others found by subsequent simulation crews.
Fast-forward five years: Williams, who runs the Burpee Museum in Rockford, Illinois, was casting around for a field site to explore in Utah. He asked BLM officials where the most promising areas might be — and was told that there was a preserved river channel near Hanksville where visitors had been picking up fossils for years.
Williams still remembers the day he and his team were taken out to the site.
"Within a very short time, we saw dinosaur fossils weathering out ... chunks of bone you could just scoop up with a snow shovel," he told NBC News.
About 40 bones were excavated during the first full summer field season, in 2008. Williams has gone back every summer since then, and has picked up hundreds of bones. He rates the site now known as the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry among the nation's best digs for Jurassic fossils. "It is a massive, sauropod-dominated bonebed," he said. "It's a deposit the size of Dinosaur National Monument."
Williams isn't the only one who's impressed: Utah's state paleontologist, Jim Kirkland, also gives the quarry a glowing review.
Williams and his colleagues have concluded that the quarry was part of a braided river channel in Jurassic times. When dinosaurs died, their carcasses were washed down the river — and the disarticulated bones piled up on sandbars at the site.
Layers of sediment covered the bones over the course of millions of years. "At one point there would have been thousands of feet of sediment," Williams said.
About 100 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period that followed the Jurassic, the area was covered by a vast waterway called the Western Interior Seaway. Eventually the waters receded. Erosion cut deep channels into the sedimentary rock, exposing the now-fossilized bones once more.
The Mars-like look of the region is a big reason why the Mars Society built its experimental habitat there. Each year, crews take turns spending weeks in the desert, participating in scientific studies that focus on group dynamics, the logistics for extravehicular expeditions, and even the best menus for Mars.
Now the Mars Society and Williams' team are looking into a system aimed at strengthening the collaboration between the two groups. The general idea is to have crews at the Mars Desert Research Station record GPS coordinates and take photos of any fossils that the volunteers come across — and develop a formal procedure for passing the word.
"They'll send me data that I can examine," Williams said. "That will help the Bureau of Land Management as well." He emphasized that the plan was only in preliminary form, and that lots of the details still needed to be worked out.
Lessons for Mars
Zubrin said the collaboration would be good for future Mars exploration as well as present-day paleontology. No one expects to find dinosaurs on Mars, but it's not unreasonable to suppose that astronauts on the Red Planet could come across the fossilized evidence left behind by simpler organisms — for example, structures known as stromatolites, which were formed on Earth by ancient microbial mats.
"This discovery really shows how important it is to send human explorers to Mars," Zubrin said in an announcement about the collaboration.
He said a robotic rover with wheels wouldn't have been able to negotiate the terrain that he and his crewmates climbed over, and probably would have missed finding the fossils. "Furthermore, now that professional paleontologists are on the scene, those finds are being followed up in a way that is light-years beyond the capabilities of tele-operated rovers," he said.
Zubrin said he got a kick out of revisiting the site, now that it's recognized as a paleontological paradise.
"In 20 or 30 years, it will probably look like Dinosaur National Monument, complete with visitor center, souvenir shop, and cafeteria. I can imagine the same succession occurring on Mars," he wrote.
It might start with an astronaut making an unexpected fossil find, just as Zubrin did 13 years ago in Utah. Professional scientists would be brought in from a nearby base, or even Earthside, to conduct an exhaustive dig. Eventually, the experts would tease out the meaning behind the discoveries — and potentially rewrite the history books.
"Then the day will come when the place is turned into an exhibit," Zubrin wrote, "and Martian kids from New Plymouth will come out on classroom field trips to gawk at the displays in the visitor center of Stromatolite National Park, while some of the teenagers slink off to make out in the broom closet. Life goes on."