Durango’s dinosaur hunter Paleontologist Dr. Jon Powell discusses media depictions of dinosaurs, dream fossil finds, and the fossil scene in Southwestern Colorado
Dr. Jon Powell has a stack of stunning exploits. The man helped substantiate the theory of plate tectonics through finding the first vertebrate fossils in Antarctica – before he had even finished college! He had a near-30-year career in the U.S. Air Force and now forgoes retirement to teach geosciences at the Fort as an adjunct.
A damn charming paleontologist, you can meet him yourself at the Powerhouse Science Center’s Pub Science night on Friday, Jan. 20, beginning at 5:30 p.m. With free admission, a cash bar of craft beer, and open conversation, Powell will share his decades of dinosaur knowledge – hell yes.
Most folks know that dinosaurs roamed Colorado, but did you know that you can find fragments of fossils as close as two miles from downtown Durango? Southwest Colorado has a high likelihood of a significant find. Powell is searching for that extraordinary discovery, and training future generations to do the same.
Colorado used to be a “dinosaur highway.” What does that mean?Well, when you go back in time, one of the things you discover is that North America didn’t always look like it does today. At one point, North America was divided in two by this interior seaway. It divided the east coast from the west coast. If you were a big dinosaur and you are trying to find food to eat, you won’t stay in one place. You’ll eat everything in sight and then starve to death. Migration patterns start. Dinosaurs cross the land, eating as they are go, then turn around, and eat on the way back. In the eastern planes of Colorado, we have this fantastic site, Picketwire Canyonlands, with thousands and thousands of dinosaur tracks that show this migration pattern.
The tracks are still visible today? Yes, the sediments that were on top of them were eroded away and it is in a shallow river valley so all these tracks are exposed. What is really cool is that you see not only these tracks but evidence of these big, long-necked dinosaurs traveling in a herd. Then of these dinosaurs being trapped by meat-eating dinosaurs that were following them. Now, we haven’t seen any chewed up skeleton remains in there, but who knows? Maybe someday someone will find that.
This site is fully accessible to the public? Anyone can hike into that area. In fact, we really encourage amateurs who are interested in paleontology to go there. Many, many discoveries have been made by amateurs. There are restrictions about picking things up or collecting them. We want to make sure that these things end up in a museum or a university where they can be studied.
What’s the fossil scene like in Southwest Colorado?We haven’t been quite as fortunate as some of the other areas in the state. For example, the state dinosaur, the stegosaurus, has been found in other areas and so has the diplodocus and the allosaurus. But, we have found scrappy little pieces of bones here and there, and in some locations we’ve found several bones that are articulated together. One sight that my students have been involved in, as well as the Colorado State Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, is a site where bones have been weathering out for a while. There is a hip bone, tail bone, vertebrate, pieces of ribs, and a long leg bone that is currently on display at the Center for Southwest Studies. So, that is kind of like a promise. “Here’s a bunch of fossils. We promise you’ll find more.” When any animal dies, the bones gradually become more and more scattered. It is unusual when you find them all stuck together. We are hoping that one of these days someone will stumble across a complete skeleton.
How’d you become a dinosaur hunter? Like many people who got into paleontology, I got interested in the field when I was a little kid and read books about dinosaurs. I first became fascinated by a book that my friend had that showed pictures of dinosaur eggs. I was always interested in pursuing that. I was very, very fortunate when I was a senior in college. I got picked to go on an expedition to Antarctica. We were trying to find the first vertebrate fossils that would help prove and tie together the theory of plate tectonics. We were really fortunate and we found the very first fossil evidence of that. That was a fantastic expedition. Then I had a little bit of a hiatus. I worked for the U.S. Air Force for 27 years. I traveled, made lots of friends all over the world and collected fossils all over the world in my free time. When I retired from the Air Force, I moved out here and I began teaching.
Does the media ever get depictions of dinosaurs correct? PBS and National Geographic have both put together some wonderful shows that try to portray dinosaurs as they really were and how they died and how they became fossils. One interesting thing is that the more we know, the more even good programs become dated. If you look at images of dinosaurs from 10 to 15 years ago, they are scaly animals running around. Now we know that a lot of dinosaurs had feathers. Not necessarily feathers that allowed them to fly, but they could be feathers for warmth or to say, “Hey, here I am. Let’s have a date this weekend!” The more we learn about dinosaurs and their behaviors, the more we can portray them accurately. The most accurate depictions are always the ones that came out last week because the science changes so fast.
Did all dinosaurs have feathers? We’re still trying to figure out if all dinosaurs had feathers. We have some very rare dinosaur mummies that do preserve some skin. There are other dinosaurs in China – some small and some a little bit larger – that have been found, where skin and these feathers have been preserved. So probably no, not all dinosaurs had feathers but enough of them did to make it really, really interesting.
What makes someone a talented student in paleontology? Someone with a natural curiosity. Someone who has a background not only in geology, but it’s more and more important for a background in biology, too. Maybe to know a little bit of climate and weather sciences. All of these things really tie into paleontology.
What would you say to someone who says “Why waste money on digging up fossils? We have enough fossils to study.”From a paleontologist’s standpoint, we never have enough fossils. One of the favorite sayings of geologists and paleontologists is, “The present is the key to the past.” Without geology and geoscientists, we would have no idea what past climates were really like on Earth. History can be a really eye-opening experience, to observe what climate is doing, not day to day weather patterns, but long-term climate patterns. How does today compare to what we see in the past? When we look at climate from a paleontological standpoint and a geological standpoint, and look at the meteorology involved in it – it is pretty horrifying. The Earth is warming up much, much faster than anything we have seen in the past.
Did cannabis exist at the time of dinosaurs? Would they have eaten it? We have found evidence, not of cannabis in dinosaurs, but of general stomach contents. You can find, on very rare occasions, a dinosaur that has been preserved completely – even its internal organs. When you find that, you can take it apart and find out that they eat things like palm, pine cones, all kinds of tough vegetation. In the time of the dinosaurs, there was no grass. Small shrubs, but no grass. In carnivorous dinosaurs, we find fragments of other dinosaurs. We’ve found some dinosaurs that have even scarfed up seashells on the beach. We see those sort of things ... The best estimate is that cannabis first appeared about 34 million years ago, long after the dinosaurs. But who knows? Maybe they had their own favorites!
What’s your favorite dinosaur?I should be diplomatic and say it’s gotta be stegosaurus, the state dinosaur of Colorado. But, I think small dinosaurs like Deinonychus, one of these little raptors, are fascinating animals. They have larger brains than most other dinosaurs. They’re very speedy and look intelligent.
Why is the stegosaurus our state dinosaur?I don’t know the complete story, but what I heard was that a group of elementary school kids who really liked stegosaurus proposed it to the state legislature. And why not? It was first discovered here and it is a very cool looking dinosaur with these big triangular plates on it. That’s another thing: We look at that dinosaur and we say, “What were those triangular plates used for?” and some people have suggested maybe they were armor ... I’ve looked at the actual fossils of those plates. There are so many cavities for blood vessels to run through that they really look like a sponge. They are fragile. They wouldn’t have been good for armor. If somebody hit that, you’d bleed all over the place. But here’s an interesting idea: One of the ways that chameleons change their colors is by pushing blood into certain cells and warming them up. The temperature changes as blood goes into those cells and that causes the color change. So what if the stegosauruses plates are giant neon signs that say, “Hi! Here I am!”?
What would be a fabulous fossil find?I would love to have one of my students find the tail of a dinosaur. We could dig the whole thing up from the tail to the head. That would be fantastic. We have enough talented students going out and surveying the countryside and enough wonderful amateurs out there that we hope to eventually find something that scale. That would be ideal. I would love to see a mounted dinosaur skeleton up at Fort Lewis College.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.— Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer