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Flipping the Bone: A Father-Daughter Dinosaur Dig
Tim Livengood, at left, stabilizes a plaster-jacketed vertebra while Dr. Alton Dooley trims the excess plaster and burlap from the jacket, in preparation for completing the jacket with more plaster and burlap.> View larger image
Tim Livengood, at left, stabilizes a plaster-jacketed vertebra while Dr. Alton Dooley trims the excess plaster and burlap from the jacket, in preparation for completing the jacket with more plaster and burlap. Credit: Rachel Livengood
Fifteen-year-old Rachel Livengood, the daughter of Goddard astrophysicist and planetary spectroscopist, Dr. Timothy A. Livengood, has always been fascinated by paleontology. She grew up listening to her father, a storyteller associated with several local storytelling groups, relate dinosaur bedtime stories. Rachel has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder, which has made school at times challenging. At the same time, Asperger’s Syndrome has allowed her to become intensely focused on and knowledgeable about her main interest; namely, dinosaurs.

As a result, last June, Tim and Rachel went on a week-long dinosaur dig in Wyoming. Tim wanted Rachel to experience success doing something in which she excelled and that she loved and knew that a dinosaur dig was the perfect opportunity. Tim, who honeymooned at Stonehenge, was also excited. “I have always had a weird fascination about things that have been on Earth longer than me. I have always been interested in history and the world I have been born into. I like dinosaur bones and ancient history.”

The dinosaur dig was led by Dr. Alton Dooley of the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, Va. The dig team consisted of Dr. Alton Dooley and his son, Tim, Rachel, and two others. The expedition was funded by the Virginia Museum of Natural History together with grants, gifts, and contributions from dig participants.

The site is on land administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. Surface prospecting is legal, but a permit is required to excavate. This particular site is a mature dig, which has been worked for several years and has 130 million-year-old dinosaur bones. According to Tim, “The amazing thing is that once you know what broken fragments of dinosaur bones look like, they are everywhere.”

The dig team stayed in a cabin at a local campground. They had breakfast and dinner in town, and packed a lunch to eat at the excavation. The group drove to the site in a four-wheel drive and then hiked the last part to avoid leading anyone unwanted to the site. The exact location of the site is kept quiet to avoid notice by unscrupulous traders.

All work during the excavation is done with one goal in mind—to preserve the bones. According to Tim, “Dinosaur bones are extremely fragile. A big expense of dinosaur excavation is all the glue you need. You are constantly gluing fragments of bone together. The fossilized dinosaur bones are in many pieces that are held in place by the sediment they’re buried in. It’s like a glass buried in sand and then the box of sand is crushed and the glass is broken. You have to glue the pieces together as you remove the sand so they won’t get jumbled up.”

There is a prescribed method to digging because of the extreme fragility of the ancient bones. Explains Tim, “You begin with shovels. Once you find something, you start being more careful. When you get down to bone, you dig around it with trowels, dental picks, or whatever. Very big screwdrivers were used to pry up bits of packed sediment. Once you have gotten down to the bone, you use a brush to remove the sediment very carefully.”

Rachel spent a lot of time digging out a femur, possibly from a young Camarasaurus. The femur was about 3 feet long, 5 inches high, and 8 inches wide. Rachel dug out the middle of the femur, leaving both ends still supported on sediment. Rachel then had a “deeply emotional moment” when one end of the femur broke off while she was brushing it clean. “We glued it back on essentially using superglue. This is not the permanent fix; this is just so all the parts get to the lab in the right position.”

The exposed bone was next encased in plaster for protection before transporting it to the lab. After the bone is exposed, the upper surface is covered in damp toilet paper. Next, the bone is wrapped in big strips of burlap soaked in plaster of Paris. Larger bones such as the femur Rachel worked on are also braced with wood. Once dry, the remaining sediment posts are chipped away.

The next crucial step involves very carefully turning over the bone, which is called “flipping the bone,” so as to plaster the other side. The fully plastered bone is carried out of the dig on a stretcher. As Tim explained, “You cannot reliably carry the bone by its plaster jacket because the bone is so fragile.”

While working the dig, Tim and Rachel saw much wildlife including pronghorn antelope, moose, scorpions, and lizards. They even found mice nesting in the shredded toilet paper in a plaster jacket. In addition to wildlife, they also had to be aware of lightning storms. Tim was philosophical, “The dinosaur bones waited 130 million years; they can wait another day.”

The dinosaur dig reinforced Rachel’s interest in a career in paleontology and opened the door for her to possibly work for Dr. Dooley next summer. As for Tim, he was very happy that his daughter had been so successful. Indeed, Tim said that, “The best part was that I got to see my daughter doing something that she really shines at. I knew she could be good at it. It was good to see her discover that she could be good at it.”

Elizabeth M. Jarrell