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Utah Paleontologists Turn to Crowdfunding for Raptor Project
Time:16-09-2017  Hits:6

Utah Paleontologists Turn to Crowdfunding for Raptor Project

Animatronic Dinosaur

Millions of years ago, on a mud flat somewhere in Cretaceous Utah, a group of Utahraptors made a grave mistake: They tried to hunt near quicksand. The pack’s poor fortune has given modern paleontologists an opportunity to decode the giant raptor — its appearance, growth and behavior — but only if they can raise the money.
Enter “The Utahraptor Project,” started on GoFundMe last year with a $100,000 goal. It offers backers access to a field worker’s blog, a live “Raptor Cam” and digital models of the find put together through the process of photogrammetry. While it is far from reaching its goal, the team is optimistic.
“Once we get this up and running, with all the cameras and gizmos to record the action on a micro and macro level,” said Scott Madsen, a fossil preparator, “I think we can give the public a good show for their money.”
Utahraptor, 23 feet long and weighing over a ton, was one of the largest dromaeosaurs, feathered, sickle-clawed dinosaurs closely related to birds. Since its discovery in 1991, it has been the subject of a popular novel, assorted documentaries and tie-in toys from “Jurassic Park.” But for all its fame, the predator has been known primarily from only a few remains. That changed in 2001, when a geology student found a leg bone emerging from a hillside in the Cedar Mountain formation in eastern Utah.
Over 12 field seasons, a team of paleontologists with the Utah Geological Survey found an ever-expanding tangle of bones in the 126-million-year-old rock. When the final slab of sandstone was removed in 2014, said Jim Kirkland, Utah state paleontologist, it weighed nine tons and contained the skeletons of a herbivorous dinosaur, a 16-foot adult Utahraptor, four juveniles and a recent hatchling.
The block proved too heavy for the lab at the University of Utah, and in 2015 ended up on reinforced floors at the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point. Mr. Madsen, then an employee of the Utah Geological Survey with experience preparing fossils at Dinosaur National Monument, began the long process of cleaning the bones. Two months later, he had been laid off: The agency’s budget, which is partly funded by the proceeds from drilling on state land, was hit hard by the 2014 plunge in oil prices. There wasn’t any money to pay him.
Without Mr. Madsen, the Utahraptor block sat in limbo. Attempts to find outside funding didn’t go well, Dr. Kirkland said: The Museum of Ancient Life declined to help raise money for the block over concerns it would conflict with the museum’s own fund-raising efforts. With attempts to get corporate sponsors coming to nothing, Mr. Madsen suggested a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the setup and hours of labor needed to properly document the fossils.
Paleontologists have turned to crowdfunding before, though usually only for a few thousand dollars at most, Mr. Madsen said. The size of the block required a more ambitious funding push.
The Utahraptor Project has attracted interest from dinosaur enthusiasts on social media and paleontology blogs. But while donations ranging from $5 to $1,500 have trickled in, the campaign has raised only $15,150 over the past 10 months. That is enough to buy some basic tools and begin work, Mr. Madsen said, but not enough for the team’s more ambitious goals.
Mr. Madsen has yet to be paid for his efforts. “I’m in a personally awkward place doing this crowdfunding thing, not least of which because I’m asking for money to pay myself for this work.”
The contents of the block already offer some intriguing possibilities, Dr. Kirkland said. They represent the remains of predators that stumbled into quicksand while pursuing trapped prey, one of the first such cases in the fossil record. Dr. Kirkland wants to determine whether each of the seven animals arrived at different times, or whether a single pack was buried at once. If the bones are interlaced, or show signs of equivalent amounts of weathering, that would be good evidence for a rich family life for Utahraptor.


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