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Episode 10: Why Do We Look For Dinosaurs In Montana And Wyoming?

Transcript:

Welcome back to the New Jersey State Museum’s Ask the Experts Video Learning Library, where we’ve been digging into some of the most common questions people ask paleontologists about what we do and how we do it.

By now hopefully you’ve learned a lot about paleontology. We’ve covered the basics of everything from planning and running a paleontological expedition, to preparing the fossils in the lab, and even how to use those fossils to learn more about the animals themselves.

There’s just one more question that people often ask us, and that is, “Why don’t we find as many dinosaurs in New Jersey as we do out here, places like Montana and Wyoming?” Let’s start digging into those questions right now.  

It seems like we’re always hearing about new dinosaur discoveries in places like Montana and Wyoming, but never back in New Jersey. People from New Jersey and really all over the East Coast often ask me “why weren’t there as many dinosaurs back there as there are out here.” The answer, I always tell them, is really quite simple.  There WERE as many dinosaurs back East as there are out here. The difference has nothing to do with the number of dinosaurs, but has everything to do with the climate. Not the ancient climate - but the climate today. 

Take a look at this area, in the northern Bighorn Basin of Wyoming.  Now here is a typical scene in New Jersey. What about this locality in southern Montana?  And back here in eastern North America. The obvious difference here is how green and lush and vegetated eastern North America is compared to much of the West, where plants are often sparse, and the ground is usually left bare. And the reason for this huge difference in plant cover? Precipitation. Rain. Eastern portions of the continent get a lot more rain than the arid West, which allows those plants to grow and completely cover the ground here. Without much plant cover, erosion tends to happen much more rapidly, sculpting the spectacular cliffs, canyons, and other dramatic landforms that characterize the West. 

So, think about it. Now that you know that fossils are pieces of ancient animals or plants preserved within rocks, and buried for millions of years deep below the surface, where do you think would be easier to find bits of them eroding out of the ground? Here? Or here? What about here? Or here? Seems pretty obvious, right? 

Of course, there’s one more reason why we find a lot more dinosaurs out West than we do in New Jersey… people. And their stuff. It’s hard to find fossils buried in the ground, if they’re also buried under highways, neighborhoods, warehouses, stores, and shopping malls. 

Sure they have those things in the western parts of the country, but there are a lot fewer people out there, spread over a much bigger area. In short, there are just a lot more places to look out there. 

With that, we’ve come to the end of the New Jersey State Museum’s Ask the Experts Video Learning Library.  So far we’ve dug into a lot of different questions about what exactly it is paleontologists do and how we do it, and we hope you’ve had a lot fun.  But those are far from the only questions we get asked all the time. Things like “why are complete skeletons so rare?  How can we tell so much about the environment that these animals lived in? And how do we come up with those crazy names, anyway?  Well, we’d better start digging into those next season. Until then, we have more than enough to keep us busy. 

We also hope you’ve enjoyed your time with us on our expeditions and in the lab.   You can follow along on our adventures by searching the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project on social media or in the news.  Please let us know if you’d like to join us in the field, and please visit us at the museum soon.  

Thank you for joining us, and as always, keep digging.