Museum of Field Discovery: Ever-growing collection of dinosaur bones at CNCC educates inside and out

Sue Mock, director of the Northwest Colorado Field Museum, explains how the materials surrounding dinosaur bones, such as sandstone, plant matter, and mud, can tell a lot about the conditions surrounding the dinosaur’s lifespan.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

The Northwest Colorado Field Museum at Colorado Northwestern Community College is a newly established museum, established just three years ago and growing steadily.

The museum gives patrons insight into the process of finding, excavating, and studying the dinosaur bones found in the area. The museum experience begins in a modern laboratory where museum director Sue Mock uses dermestid beetles to compare the decay and aging of different types of animal bones to dinosaur bones collected as part of the paleontology.

The lab is also used to make molds and casts of dinosaur bones once they have been excavated. The casts are used to create lab kits, which travel around the region to paleontology students for study.

Castings and molds vary in size from large dinosaur legs to smaller segments showing the surface texture of dinosaur skin.

Sue Mock, director of the Northwest Colorado Field Museum, holds out her arm to show the scale of a dinosaur leg bone cast.
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Mock said the lab will soon create smaller casts of dinosaur teeth, which will be available for sale. Proceeds from the dinosaur tooth casts will directly benefit Friends of National History, a new non-profit organization whose mission is to support the paleontology program and museum and to continue the exploration of natural history in the region.

CNCC offers a two-year associate degree with a designation in paleontology studies, which allows students to pursue a degree in paleontology with a four-year institution. The paleontology designation includes two weeks of time in the field to do hands-on scouting and excavation.

It was during a field reconnaissance trip that the current dig site near Dinosaur National Monument was identified. Initially, the students found bones and upon further exploration discovered that the site was more than just a collection of bones. This site has the potential to be connected to the larger Dinosaur National Monument system.

Mock said the team plans to clean up the current dig site this summer and turn it into something customers can come to see as an extension of the work done with the field museum. The dig site is still in the discovery phase and there is still a lot of work to do before it becomes open to the public as part of the discovery.

“That’s what I love most about paleontology, you never know what’s next,” Mock said.

One of the significant discoveries to come from the area was the discovery of a dinosaur known as Walter, named after Walter the Great Dane who is credited with sniffing out the first set of bones which led to the discovery.

Sue Mock, director of the Northwest Colorado Field Museum, shows samples of organic material that surrounds the bones of a dinosaur named Walter.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

Walter is a Hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur of the Tyrannosaurus family from the Cretaceous period. The bones were discovered by Ellis Thomson-Ellis, her husband Josh Ellis and Walter, their dog, while hiking south of Rangely in 2014.

It took six years for paleontology teams at the college to excavate Walter’s bones and remains. The completed casts are now on display in the Field Museum and the bones are studied in the Preservation Repository.

The Northwest Colorado Field Museum has been granted Federal Curatorial Repository status, a rare designation among paleontology programs. This means that if dinosaur bones are found here in the local area, the museum can keep them for further study and preservation, Mock explained.

Besides extracting dinosaur bones, a lot can be learned from the materials surrounding the bones, Mock explained.

In the material surrounding Walter, the paleontology program found mangroves, sandstone, mud, and other materials. The surrounding layers indicate the landscape and conditions present when Walter was alive and what potentially caused his fossilization at that location and time.

The Preservation Repository is where bone pieces and fragments are reassembled to give students and preppers a full understanding of the full shape and size of the dinosaurs so they can be correctly identified. The paleontology team was able to piece together enough bones collected from Walter to figure out his size.

Most of Walter’s head and beak bones were also found and reconstructed, but some anomalies prompted the team to send the skull to a program in North Carolina for further study.

Walter’s nose bridge and a section of his bill are still cataloged in the Field Museum repository.

Walter’s constructed leg bone, Daspletosaurus torosus, on display at the Northwest Colorado Field Museum.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

Among Walter’s remains, the deposit contains other types of dinosaur bones from other periods.

Numerous fossils have been found at regional sites, including Duffy Mountain, where small dinosaur footprints from the Jurassic period have been found, and Sandwash Basin, which is known to have many turtle shell fossils, which are among the youngest specimens in the world. collection.

The oldest dinosaur bone in the repository is a femur from a baby’s long neck, which is nearly complete at over four feet long.

Sue Mock shows the oldest specimen in the museum’s preservation repository, a femur from a baby’s long neck.
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The oldest specimen in the CNCC repository is a femur from a baby’s long neck.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

Once CNCC paleontology students have gained their field experience and spent time in the repository studying and assembling bones, they are asked to focus on the conservation side of the job.

Towards the end of their two-year program, students are invited to make a contribution to the dinosaur museum on the CNCC campus. This means that many field museum exhibits are created by students in the program to show their fieldwork and tell the story of paleontological discovery.

The hallways of the field museum are still taking shape as the bones of the dinosaurs are pieced together. Mock even created an installation called “Fill the Wall, Fund a Scholar”, where patrons can fill the wall with colorful pictures of dinosaurs across the different time periods.

Once the wall is filled, the college will hold a draw to select one student to receive a $500 scholarship. The installation is a win-win for the students who receive a scholarship and for the patrons who can exhibit their works in a local museum during the semester.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday with free entry. You can make an appointment for a guided tour or take a self-guided tour.

Since the depot is an active workspace, it requires the accompaniment of college staff, but the museum exhibits in the hallways are still open to the public. Because students create new installations each semester, the museum is constantly updated.

Museum director Sue Mock with dinosaur bone fragments being reassembled.
Amber Delay/Craig Press
Sue Mock, director of the museum, holds pieces of the facial structure and skull of the dinosaur Walter, whose bones were found locally.
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Walter’s ankle bone on display at the CNCC Colorado Northwestern Field Museum.
Amber Delay/Craig Press

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