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Paleo Hall

Paleontology: It's More Than Just Dinosaur Dig Sites (Though, That's Pretty Cool!)


Blazing summer sun shines high overhead as a couple hikes through the high Colorado desert with their Great Dane, Walter. The dog stops to investigate something lodged in a rock outcropping. The hikers squint at the bony-looking protrusion and conclude it could be an interesting artifact; after all, dinosaur bones aren’t exactly rare in this corner of the world. 

Fortunately, one of the hikers is an instructor at a college just up the road and has a colleague there who is an expert in paleontology. The hiker makes a quick call. The paleontologist is a bit skeptical; she receives reports of bone-sightings on a fairly regular basis. Nevertheless, she agrees to come out and take a look.

Paleo Dig

Sounds like the intro to another dinosaur movie? It isn’t. The paleo expert happens to be Liz Johnson, a science instructor at the Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) and the object in the rocks isn’t just another dinosaur bone in a dinosaur dig site. It’s a piece of the nearly complete fossilized skeletal remains of an approximately 50-foot long creature, pristinely preserved where it died 74 million years ago. And the bones are just 15 miles south of the CNCC Rangely Campus. 

And, the dinosaur specimen is Walter, named for the dog that found it.This find in 2014 would set CNCC on a path to develop its uniquely hands-on, experiential paleontology course of studies, which officially launched in fall, 2019. The program provides 100- and 200-level students with the field, lab, and exhibit experience that many advanced students don’t get until grad school. Today, the CNCC program extends to the community — the college also offers one-of-a-kind learning opportunities for the public. And, as a result of the find, the college houses a federally-operated artifact repository called the Colorado Northwestern Field Museum.

Johnson, who is now the curator of the repository at CNCC, describes paleontology as the ultimate interdisciplinary science. Bones, it turns out, tell a multi-faceted story — if you have the skills to “read” them. “In order to understand the bones in-ground, you have to understand geology. You also have to know anatomy, understand evolution, and what those bones are telling you. You have to know biology and you need expertise in chemistry and microbiology to grasp what happens during the process of decay,” Johnson explains.  

With such a breadth of subject matter and skill development, CNCC’s paleontology studies can open up the door to many career options. Whether your goal is going straight to work, transferring to a university for a bachelor’s in just about any science-related discipline, or pursuing a master’s or doctorate in the field, CNCC’s paleontology courses can lay the appropriate foundation for your next steps. 


A Paleontology Experience Like No Other

Walter's Leg Bone

Many careers within the paleontology field, such as research and teaching, require an advanced degree. Because of the unusually comprehensive and hands-on opportunities offered in the paleontology 

Johnson explains it this way. “At CNCC, we are a two-year institution where students can take their chemistry, biology, and all those basics, but we also add to that a hands-on field paleontology component that students wouldn’t normally get until they are at a master’s or Ph.D. level. Our students can come out and dig for two weeks and we teach them all they need to know, from geology and mapping to techniques you use out in the field. Then they come back and actually prepare the bones in the labs, and they get to see behind-the-scenes museum protocols, procedures, and data tracking. All that culminates at the end of the program when they design and implement their own exhibit within our building.”program at CNCC, students can benefit from the affordable community college tuition while taking paleontology courses as part of an Associate of Science degree at the college. That gives students a considerable head start if they choose to later transfer to a four-year institution to continue their studies in the field or apply the skills they learn to a variety of jobs when they graduate from CNCC.


Paleontology = A Wide Array of Skills

Many of the programs at CNCC are career-focused, designed for students who want to jump into good jobs with a two-year degree. Johnson explains that while the paleontology studies program is not specifically designed to graduate professional paleontologists in two years, it does serve as a springboard for many opportunities. For example, Johnson observes, “If you take the paleontology course of study, you can work as a vet tech, because you’ll have the skills and knowledge in biology to do that. Or you can be a chemistry lab tech, or even work in a more senior position on a firefighter crew because you’ll know all about the geology of the area. Basically, you are a jack-of-all-science-trades. As a result, students can be very versatile in the job market.”

She adds that in today’s quickly changing job market, an ability to think on your feet and come up with innovative ways to tackle challenges is a quality many employers seek more than a background in specific coursework. And when it comes to problem-solving, paleontology fieldwork requires a lot of problem-solving skills.


When Dinosaur Dig Sites Are Your Classroom, Experience Is Your Teacher

Rangely Site Overview

“It’s amazing how just three people can move 650 pounds up a cliff without being bodybuilders,” laughs Johnson. “It’s all about applying physics and problem-solving. Even if you have cell phone service out in the field, there are a lot of challenges you can’t just Google an answer for!” Understandably, many of the problems dig teams encounter are unique and don’t lend themselves to ready-made solutions. And, typically, many solutions need to be implemented manually. “You can’t get a car to these areas. You can’t even get a four-wheeler to these areas. So everything has to be accomplished by hand.”

Nature has a way of revising lesson plans out in the field as well. “You teach what comes up,” says Johnson. She recounts being part of a dig team that witnessed a flash flood ripping through a ravine. “It was raining and we heard a roar in the background. We thought, ‘Okay, we’re high up on the hill, let’s go up onto the side where we could see the ravine.’ We saw a wall of water coming down and got to see first-hand the power that water has on the landscape.”


Colorado: It’s Littered with Bones

Though paleontologists do much more than uncover buried treasures at dinosaur dig sites, dinosaur bones are not an unusual sight for scientists and students who dig in Colorado. Both CNCC campuses sit on a hotbed — or rather, more like a lakebed — of bones waiting to help scientists tell the Earth’s story. In Colorado, much of that story comes from the chapter of Earth’s history known as the Cretaceous Period. During that time, as Johnson explains it, much of the area was covered by a shallow sea fed by multiple rivers and teeming with life.

The rivers dumped sediment into the river deltas, burying carcasses that were preserved through many millennia, while the inland sea dried up and Colorado was pushed more than a mile up in elevation. “We have areas that are just littered with bones, whether it’s dinosaur or mammal or turtle or crocodile. We often get calls from the public and from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who are understaffed, asking, ‘There’s a report of a dinosaur bone in the middle of the road, can you go check it out?’” 

Not only did the sedimentary conditions of the Cretaceous set Colorado up as an amazing repository for dinosaur bone diggers, Johnson points out that the wide-open quality of the Colorado landscape also plays a role. “Here in the desert, there are no trees. You can see rocks. You can see formations. You can see the dinosaur bones.”


The Study of Paleontology Is More Than Just Dinosaur Dig Sites

Bones for Study

In the public imagination, dinosaurs are the face, typically a fierce one, of the paleontology profession. But the time of the dinosaurs is just one segment of the larger picture paleontologists work with. 

The dinosaurs we’re familiar with lived their lives in the Mesozoic Era, which encompasses the Triassic period, starting about 252 million years ago; the Jurassic Period, starting about 200 million years ago; and the Cretaceous Period, which started about 145 million years ago and ended about 66 million years ago when an enormous asteroid crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Life began on Earth a very long time before dinosaurs showed up, however. Paleontologists trace life back to its very origins between 3.5 and 4 billion years ago, starting with a single-celled, sea-dwelling organism scientists call LUCA — the last universal common ancestor. Paleontologists learn how this organism divided into fungi, plants, and animals, and they work to figure out how early lifeforms evolved to develop into the lifeforms that surround us today.

Unlike in the movies, paleontologists don’t just work in khaki shorts and hats under a merciless sun in dusty landscapes. They also analyze and preserve specimens in labs, conduct research for publication, develop museum and repository exhibits for public education, and interface with a variety of government agencies.

When you study paleontology at CNCC, it will involve working at dinosaur dig sites, but it will also equip you with a knowledge base that spans many scientific disciplines and a skill set that covers the entire research and scientific reporting workflow.


Walter’s Story: Past, Present, and Future

Paleo Hall Leg Bone Display

Back in 2014, finding Walter would prove to be a catalyst for CNCC’s paleontology program. The faculty member whose dog found the dino was Ellis Thompson-Ellis, then an oceanography instructor at 

CNCC. Johnson remembers receiving the call from Ellis and thinking it would turn out to be a minor find or just a rock. “But she convinced me to get out there and there wasn’t just one bone sticking out of the cliff, there were five, and there were preserved skin impressions as well. This was a once-in-a-career specimen and I knew I wouldn’t likely get this chance again.”

CNCC had a few options: hand the dig over to another institution to manage, run the site but then relinquish the specimen for housing at an existing, approved repository, or run the dig site and keep Walter on campus by meeting the requirements to become a federally-approved repository. Only the third option would provide ongoing learning opportunities for CNCC students, and as Johnson puts it, “Everything we do cycles back to how to get our students involved.” CNCC opted to make the building upgrades and meet other various standards that would allow Walter to remain on campus.

The task of getting Walter there was intense and lengthy. In 2015, CNCC launched the Community Dig program and for the next five summers, staff, students, and community members painstakingly revealed the bones and safely encased them in burlap and plaster casts known as jackets. Then, in the summer of 2019, it was time to airlift Walter — tethered to a Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control helicopter — to the Craig campus. “That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life,” Johnson recalls. “Five years of work hanging in the air.”

Johnson says it will take about another five years to finish cleaning Walter and to publish the paper detailing Walter’s species and place in Earth’s history. “We’re pretty sure of the species but I can’t say that publicly until the paper comes out.” She can say that Walter is a species within the Hadrosaur family (Hadrosauridae), the duck-billed herbivores that proliferated on this continent along with well-known dinosaurs such as Triceratops. 

The name Hadrosaur means bulky lizard. Some Hadrosaur species had crested heads, others didn’t. Walter is one that didn’t. Hadrosaurus, Triceratops, and other herbivores enjoyed abundant vegetation and relatively safe conditions. “It’s the wrong time-frame for T. Rex, but his ancestor, Plesiosaurus, a very similar meat-eater, was around. But there weren’t a lot of those big meat-eaters so that’s why we have a lot of fossils of these duck-billed dinosaurs haphazardly scattered out here. The reason Walter is so unique is that it’s almost a complete specimen.”

Even though Walter and the animals with whom he shared the land and sea died out, the descendants of the dinosaurs who once ruled the air managed to weather the asteroid aftermath and are still with us. As Johnson explains, “Technically, dinosaurs did survive — birds.” There is a wide consensus among paleontologists that birds are directly descended from flying dinosaurs. Johnson has been involved with research in which proteins from dinosaur bones have been sequenced and shown to be very similar to that of modern birds.  

While we don’t know exactly what Walter experienced 70 million years ago, today he is a storyteller; his bones are helping CNCC staff and students piece together and understand the history of the planet and the land we live on.


The People’s Land, the People’s Artifacts

For Johnson and CNCC, involving the public in the process of paleo discovery is paramount. It’s a way of allowing people to be part of one of science’s most captivating pursuits. “Almost every kid wants to be a paleontologist at some point when they are growing up,” Johnson points out. 

Members of the community around Craig, as well as anyone who wants to take a two-week trip to Craig, can enroll either for credit or not-for-credit in the two-week digs during the summer. The sessions include Community Days, where CNCC students are tasked with teaching science to the public, using exhibits they have designed themselves. By teaching others, students demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter and communication skills.

Johnson sees this circle of education as serving a larger purpose. It helps people respect public lands and develop a sense of participation in discovering the artifacts hidden in Colorado’s landscape. “They’re not CNCC’s bones, they’re not Craig’s bones, they’re not Rangely’s bones,” Johnson says. “They belong to all of us. Everything we do is for education and for people to see and learn about.”


Coloardo Northwestern Field Museum at CNCC Craig offers tours every weekend and holidays from 10:00am to 2:00pm and admissions is free!


For more information on CNCC’s one-of-a-kind paleontology course of studies, and the Summer Dig programs and Community Days, visit the CNCC paleontology studies program web page.

Published May 13, 2020


About CNCC

Colorado Northwestern is one college in two Colorado communities. Depending on what you want to study, CNCC has the perfect surroundings and facilities to meet your needs. Founded in 1962 as “Rangely College,” CNCC now serves nearly 1,600 students on two campuses, two service centers and online. Our two campuses are located in Craig and Rangely and are 90 miles apart in the mountains and canyons of Northwestern Colorado.