‘Walter’ the dinosaur gets a lift

Fossilized remains of a 74 million year old hadrosaur—nicknamed Walter—were airlifted out of the high desert near Rangely and transported to the federal repository at the Craig Campus of Colorado Northwestern Community College. CNCC Courtesy Photo

RANGELY | The fossilized remains of the dinosaur dubbed “Walter,” found just outside of Rangely in 2014 by a Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) professor, were airlifted to a federal repository on the CNCC Craig Campus Thursday, July 11, where they will join the duck-billed dinosaur’s skull and limbs.
The specimen is already noteworthy in the paleontology community for its discovery of skin-like impressions. Johnson and her collaborators hope that the skin-like impressions found are indeed preserved skin.

Following a deployment to the Dry Woman Fire in Dinosaur National Park, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) Montrose helitack crew, aided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), assisted Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) paleontologists to recover fossil remains of the large 74 million year old dinosaur from the hadrosaur family.

“This was a great opportunity to not only support CNCC, but simultaneously conduct wildland firefighter-helicopter training,” said Vince Welbaum, DFPC Aviation Unit Chief.

Today’s lift marks a milestone in a five-year journey from discovery to recovery as the DFPC helitack crew using a Bell 205++ Huey helicopter with a 100ft long line and remote hook to lift the two plaster covered jackets using cargo nets; estimated to weigh more than 1,000 pounds each and containing the bulk of the fossilized remains, from the quarry onto flatbed trailers for transportation to a federal repository located on CNCC’s Craig campus.

The dinosaur was first found by science instructor Ellis Thompson-Ellis and her husband, Josh Ellis, when their Great Dane, named Walter, chose to rest beside a piece of the dinosaur’s exposed leg bone.

The fossils are able to remain in northwest Colorado at CNCC because the Bureau of Land Management designated the Craig campus a federal fossil repository—the Colorado Northwestern Field Museum—for the storage and study of fossil materials, including Walter, collected by the college.

Under the direction of Elizabeth “Liz” Johnson, curator of paleontology and science faculty at CNCC, students, community members, volunteers and children all participated in unearthing Walter while working beside an experienced, mostly female, team.

Excavation of the relatively intact dinosaur was done during summer dig experiences operated through CNCC Community Education. Many of the jackets, weighing between 400-650 pounds each, were removed with the help of CNCC’s athletic teams up cliffs and hostile terrain.

Today’s lift aided in the removal of the chest, large pelvis bones, and many vertebrae. The skull and limbs have already been removed.

The cliff terrace that housed Walter for millions of years is an exposed layer of the Mesa Verde formation. It was formed during the late Cretaceous period when Rangely was ocean-front property along the large western interior Cretaceous seaway extending from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Northwestern Colorado is an incredibly understudied area and the quality of Walter’s preservation is very exciting,” said molecular paleontologist and quarry crew chief Tyler Bridges.

Once back at CNCC, students enrolled in science classes are given the opportunity to free fossils from the jacket, clean them and study them.

“There are no other community colleges in the nation that we know of that are a paleontology repository,” Johnson said.

Colorado Northwestern Community College—with campuses in Rangely and Craig is located in the heart of the “Dinosaur Diamond”—some of the richest fossil beds in Northwest Colorado and a short distance from Dinosaur National Monument. Summer digs are offered to any person with a passion for fossils with the option to earn college credit. The next dig is scheduled for June 2020 in a newly discovered quarry on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

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