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Utah: a gold mine for fossil discoveries

National Park Service

Utah is well known for its dinosaur fossils, but why do we have so many?

Randy Irmis, a paleontologist at the Utah Natural History Museum, spends a lot of time exploring Utah’s vast fossil record. He said one reason we’ve found so many fossils in Utah is because much of the state’s land is barren, making fossils easy to spot.

“The fact that Utah is a fairly dry state works to our advantage because we don't have tons of vegetation. And also the fact that we're a largely rural state helps out too,” Irmis said. “So it turns out parts of New York City have rocks with dinosaur fossils in them, but you know, no one's going to allow you to undermine the foundation of some giant building there, right?”

In addition to being numerous, Utah’s fossil discoveries have a long history.

“First of all, we know that indigenous peoples in Utah have been finding and recognizing fossils for thousands of years. We've got rock art of dinosaur footprints and things like that. In the early and mid-19th century, there are many different expeditions related to the US Army and things that came through, and many of them had naturalists associated with them that collected fossils,” Irmis said.

In fact, one expedition found multiple bones from a single dinosaur near Moab, an uncommon and impressive find for the times.

Utah isn’t just home to dinosaur bones. The state used to be covered by an ancient sea, and as a result, we’re known for our wide variety of marine fossils, including fish, corals and strange mounds of algae called stromatolites.                                       

“One of the really cool things about the Great Salt Lake from a fossil perspective is it's got living stromatolites, and stromatolites are some of our oldest fossils in the geologic record. So, it's pretty cool because there's these living stromatolites, and then some of the rocks here have stromatolites that are like, over 600 million years old,” Irmis said.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.