Fossil hunters have been digging in the same place near Mitchell, Oregon, for more than 70 years and have found a lot of ammonites and one dinosaur toe bone. Gregory Retallack, an emeritus professor at the University of Oregon, found the bone. He says that while he can guess that the animal was big, about 10 to 12 feet long, and likely an omnivore, a toe bone doesn’t tell you much more.
“We would like a diagnostic piece, like a piece of the skull or a tooth or something,” Retallack said, “so that we could actually name Oregon’s dinosaurs.”
So, a few years ago, the Bureau of Land Management gave Retallack a permit to try to find more bones at the dig site near Michell. He went with a group of amateurs from a local fossil collecting group to see if they could find new clues about Oregon’s Jurassic past.
Greg Carr, a retired engineer who has been looking for fossils all his life, got help from people in the North American Research Group.
“You can’t do a dig like this without having a lot of labor. You need people to shovel rock and to sift through things and to count pieces of shell,” Carr said. “And besides, people like to go dig in the rocks. This place is rewarding.”
In the end, they didn’t find any dinosaur bones during their dig in 2021. But as the workers dug deeper into the dirt and rocks at the Mitchell site, they could see that the rock bed was changing.
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“It was about a meter thick and green and strange-looking, and it was full of fragments of ammonites. But all of these shell fragments were about the size of cornflakes,” said Retallack, who added that this is characteristic of a creature eating something hard and crunching it up into small pieces.
Their theory is that the site was once home to a nesting colony of pterosaurs, a group of winged reptiles that were cousins of dinosaurs. “There’s no other reasonable explanation for that great amount of broken-up shell.”
Also, there was way too much phosphorus in the rock bed. So, Retallack said, “These two lines of evidence led us to think that what we were dealing with was something like a landslide, a debris flow of guano and shell pieces down into the shallow ocean.” “That’s a pretty big colony: a meter-thick landslide of high phosphate and shell debris.”
Even though the dig didn’t turn up any new dinosaur bones, Retallack says that it did help us learn more about what Oregon was like 100 million years ago.
It could also lead to new signs about our ancient past that we haven’t found yet.
“A pterosaur expert suggested to us that the pterosaur we’ve always known from Central Oregon might not be the one that actually chomped up the bone, that there could be two Oregon pterosaurs,” Retallack said. “So there could be another pterosaur out there which we need to find now as well. It goes on and on. This is what I really love about science, you know, even though I’m 71 years old, I’m still finding new things.”
From Carr’s point of view, just getting 82 people to the dig in one piece was a huge success. Carr said, “It was really great to see how interested people were in fossils.” “So, in my mind, it was actually a very successful dig.”