Dinosaur Murder Mystery Site Research Conducted by Warnock and Geoscience Students

Posted on 7/18/2016 1:16:59 PM

Jonathan Warnock and IUP Geoscience Students in Utah for Dinosaur Dig

Scientists have called it a “murder mystery,” and an IUP faculty member—along with IUP students—are part of the research that may help to solve the crime. For the past five years, Jonathan Warnock, a paleoclimatologist in the Department of Geoscience, has done research at the Cleveland-Lloyd dinosaur quarry near Price, Utah, in conjunction with colleague Joseph Peterson from the University of Wisconsin.

Scientists consider the area as having one of the densest concentrations of bones ever found, but don’t understand why or how this group of carnivorous dinosaurs came together. Scientists have also found that the number of carnivorous dinosaurs are three times the amount of plant-eating dinosaurs found there, based on bones already excavated.

This past year, Warnock took nine IUP undergraduate students to the site for 10 days of excavation and scientific work in June. The student travel was funded by a IUP Senate grant and geoscience departmental funds.

Jonathan Warnock IUP Department of GeoscienceA “dinosaur kid,” interested in dinosaurs since his youth, Warnock joined the IUP faculty two years ago. This is the first year he has taken IUP students to the site, a “bone bed” that has dinosaur bones dating to the late Jurassic period. 

“It’s not just about finding bones; we’re doing a lot of science at the site, both traditional and new,” Warnock said. “This summer, our students were part of the ongoing work of trying to figure out the ‘why’ of so many dinosaurs there, getting a better understanding of the Jurassic period, and doing work related to climate change. We’re asking question like, ‘was there one big event that caused these dinosaurs to die,’ and ‘why are these bones in the same direction?’ Answering these questions involve a lot of chemistry, for example, analyzing the bones and the sediment. It was a great opportunity for me to help the students experience geology and doing science in the field.”

This summer’s group did have a major find—the largest bone yet discovered, a four-foot shoulder blade from a Camarasaurus, a dinosaur with a long neck. The group also found several new sites to excavate, he said.

As part of the field experience, the students went “behind the scenes” at the Salt Lake City museum that houses all of the bones recovered at the site. While that museum owns all bones unearthed in the quarry, Warnock is permitted to take bones out “on loan” for study at IUP.

The Cleveland-Lloyd quarry is open to the public, so Warnock and the students also had the opportunity to meet and talk with visitors to the site.

Work at the quarry has drawn the interest of National Geographic. Representatives from the organization visited the quarry this summer to film Warnock and Peterson. Warnock will be featured in the online educational game for children, Animal Jam, in a “Scientist Selfie.”

Warnock and Peterson have developed a five-year plan, approved by the state of Utah and the Bureau of Land Management, to continue the study at the site, so there are future opportunities for IUP students to be part of the work.

At IUP, Warnock is studying diatom-based silica cycle reconstruction and environmental reconstruction in the Southern Ocean and Baltic Sea via novel proxy development, which offers opportunities for collaboration with his departmental colleagues.

“Indiana is different from the large cities where I have lived, but I really like IUP and the commitment of the IUP faculty to undergraduate learning,” he said.