Field lab engineer on a fossil-fueled quest

first_imgDakota stumbled across the sandstone, took a final breath, fell to the earth and died. The Badlands of Hill Creek, N.D., reclaimed the body. For everything else, life went on – and evolved. Dakota stayed almost exactly the same – for 67million years. The Lyson Farm, 1999 Tyler Lyson was out poking around in his uncle’s field. He was just 16, a sophomore in high school, but he had a keen eye. He noticed Dakota’s fossilized spine poking out of the land. “Can you do a 40-foot dinosaur?” the caller asked. “No one can do a 40-foot dinosaur,” Anders gulped. “It’s just too heavy.” But it was Dan Goldin, former NASA administrator and National Geographic board member, on the line. And for someone like him, Anders and his team would find a way. Santa Susana Field Lab, June 2007 Soon after Goldin’s call, Dakota arrived. The body weighed 4tons, the tail an additional ton. Vertebrae, skin, muscle, tendons, hooves, claws – everything Dakota left behind from the Late Cretaceous Period – showed up, encased in plywood. It looked like a cheap coffin, covered in plaster of Paris that resembled marshmallow fluff. Anders’ team loaded up the BIR Actis 1000, one of the most advanced 3D scanners in the world, and went to work on a whodunit several eras in the making. Craig Cohen, a writer and producer with the National Geographic Channel’s “Dino Autopsy” show, stood watching. He could feel the excitement in the air. “We’re here in Los Angeles, and we could be making history with this thing that’s 67million years old and hails from a thousand miles away,” Cohen said. The machine began piercing through the plaster, the wood, the rock and into Dakota. The hadrosaur began to take shape. The herbivore looked quite a bit different from when it expired. Encased in sediment, intertwined with the skeleton of a crocodile that might have nibbled upon its corpse, Dakota had held up well as the world changed around it. “I think that Dakota died – who knows what killed it? – and was on a sandbar or a river, being scavenged by the crocodile,” Lyson told “Dino Autopsy.” “Then you had a rapid flood that buried the two of them together.” When he’d first seen the bones poking out of his uncle’s land, he was no regular teen out messing around. He was already a paleontological genius, with 20 finds to his credit since he started digging at age 12. He would go on to become president and director of the Mamarth Research Foundation, a fossil-hunting group, and he had Dakota’s skeleton excavated in 2004. He’s now getting a doctorate at Yale University and working with Phil Manning, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester in England. The duo hopes to turn the rock-covered fossils into new understanding of how the hadrosaur lived and moved. As Anders’ scanners delved deeper and deeper into Dakota’s body, team members noticed the dino had an unusually thick tail. Its hindquarters were 25percent larger than previous fossil finds indicated, which blew Manning’s mind. “This animal had a big ass,” he remarked to the program. With that puffed-up posterior, Dakota could probably hit speeds of 28mph. Once thought of as a slow, cow-like animal, the lizard now looked like a speed demon. Boeing initially thought it would take three weeks to scan the fossil, but given the scope and size of the project, it has dragged on for a year and a half. Anders has put in long hours of unpaid work, analyzing data on a machine that normally rents for as much as $500 an hour. As ancient and primitive as Dakota is, the scanner is high-tech and modern. A regular hospital machine used to check out a patient’s lungs or brain might have power measured at 150,000 electron volts and take up a room in a hospital. The Actis 1000 puts out more than 6million electron volts of power and has an entire building to itself. The walls are 6feet of solid concrete. An 80,000-pound steel door separates the scanning chamber from Anders’ Cold War-era office. A hospital machine blasts its subject for a few seconds to get its reading – the Actis runs for an hour, minutely moving Dakota ever so slightly to obtain a three-dimensional picture. “It just looks like a big rock to me,” Anders said. “But when we get it going, we could see the cartilage. No one had seen that before, so it impressed even me.” This wasn’t the first time he’d fired up the machine to look at some ancient bones. His team scanned Sue, the famed Tyrannosaurus rex now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. But Sue, as cool as she was, wasn’t anywhere as complete as Dakota. The discoveries unlocked by the scanner have inspired two books, “Dino Autopsy” and “DinoMummy,” released this month. After a recent airing tested well with audiences, National Geographic Channel plans to rerun the episode of “Dino Autopsy” on Feb.24. The scans have produced more than a terabyte of information – nearly 1,500 CDs worth – and could permanently change the way dinosaur experts view fossils. Anders has to wrap up before June, when NASA plans to relocate the machine as Boeing moves to close the field lab. “I couldn’t have asked for a better project to take on to end this,” he said, looking at Dakota’s rocky sarcophagus. “It’s definitely been interesting.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECoach Doc Rivers a “fan” from way back of Jazz’s Jordan ClarksonHe took note of the duck-billed hadrosaur and vowed to return. Santa Susana Field Lab, September 2006 Jeffrey Anders’ telephone inside Building100 rang. The Boeing Co. senior engineer had seen plenty of exotic projects come through his CT scanner atop the hills in between Simi Valley and Chatsworth. The machine, the largest, most powerful instrument of its kind, could see details down to a grain of sand. NASA had him scan its space shuttle wings and rocket engines to find imperfections. The Navy asked him to look at torpedo tube doors for safety. Ford Motor Co. had him examine minivan transmissions. last_img read more