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July 6, 2009

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Monday, July 6, 2009

Severe thunderstorms, deadly wildlife and scorching heat are mere nuisances for veteran Wyoming dinosaur excavator Dr. Alton Dooley, who is leading teams on the Virginia Museum of Natural History's 2009 Wyoming Dinosaur Dig.

Some might not consider spending a week digging under Wyoming's blazing summer sun much of a vacation, but for many who take part, that's exactly what the dig is.

"Taking part in a dig is a vacation that's not for the faint of heart," said Dooley, assistant curator of paleontology at VMNH. "Participants forgo the luxuries of afternoons at the pool, fine dining and room service, but in turn are given a rewarding experience that many people never get."

Although Dooley is a veteran of the dig, many of his team members come with no experience. Students, professionals of all kinds and amateur paleontologists take part in the excavations.

Dooley spends from two to four weeks at the site each year, and participants choose one week during that time.

"Participants in these excavations are exposed to a variety of different topics," Dooley said. "They learn the techniques for properly collecting fragile fossils while working in the same deposits explored by famous paleontologists such as Edward Cope, Charles Marsh and Barnum Brown."

Although "vacation" might be a subjective term, there is little debate that the Wyoming Dig is a trip unlike many, with each day providing participants with new experiences. From surprise visits from Wyoming's indigenous scorpions and snakes to visits from the much less frightening pronghorns, exposure to Wyoming's unique wildlife is an integral part of the excavation experience.

Despite the work involved with the Wyoming excavations, participants don't spend the entire trip roughing it under the sun. Some afternoons are spent visiting the surrounding area's natural wonders and museums.

"Within a one-hour drive of our field site there are exposed a tremendous variety of rock formations spanning almost 3 billion years of the Earth's history," Dooley said. "Participants take a number of afternoon field trips to these sites as well."

Wyoming, well known for its many dinosaur fossil deposits, is in stark contrast to Virginia, which has yet to yield a single dinosaur fossil.

"There are so many fossil sites in Wyoming that it requires coordinated efforts by various museums and federal agencies to try to preserve as many fossils as possible," Dooley said. "While the Jurassic rocks in this part of Wyoming have been heavily collected over the last 150 years, there are still new discoveries being made all the time, especially since the fossils can differ dramatically in deposits that are only a few miles apart. The Two Sisters site being excavated by VMNH has never been excavated before, so we're only just starting to get a feel for what's preserved there."

Although Virginia has yielded its fair share of paleontological discoveries, Wyoming holds the distinction of being a leading dinosaur hotbed - for now.

"Not a single dinosaur fossil has ever been discovered in Virginia, but there is reason to believe that one day such a find will be made," Dooley said.

The original fossils used to create the cast of the full-size Allosaurus displayed inside the Virginia Museum of Natural History were discovered in Wyoming. This particular Allosaurus was chosen for display because it was discovered near the VMNH excavation sites. Although there is no direct evidence that Allosaurus lived in what is now Virginia, its presence in both Wyoming and in Europe makes it likely that it once roamed this region as well.

Dooley will remain in Wyoming through July 11 and keeps a blog of each day's activities at