On the Hunt for a Dinosaur

Friday, August 19, 2011 - 13:58

Jennette Niehaus FP’12 is on a “serious dino hunt.” While spending the summer near Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, she is looking for the skeleton of a sauropod—a very large dinosaur that lived between 65 and 250 million years ago—whose bones now rest somewhere in the desert.

“I love wandering among miles of rocks, racing the rain, and studying the land,” Niehaus says. Though she would like to find the sauropod and bring it back to Mount Holyoke, she’d be content just to bring back something smaller, but still one-of-a-kind.


Niehaus, a biology major and Nexus minor in sustainable development, developed this summer field-study project last spring, with the help of geology professor Mark McMenamin. She received support from the Career Development Center and the Frances Perkins Program in the form of an award from the Marjoriee Kaufman Internship Fund, part of the College's Universal Application internship funding program.

The project involves more than just dinosaur hunting: Niehaus has spent the summer studying land management issues, paleontology, ecology, and geology throughout Utah. She has also worked with the state’s wilderness programs on fossil discovery procedures and regulations and on recovering impacted soils.

“Impacted can be anything from a cattle trail to a campsite to a Jeep trail—anything that leaves a mark,” says Niehaus. Desert landscapes have delicate soil that requires the right balance of bacteria on the surface to sustain life, prevent erosion, and lessen the spread of fires. “Wilderness program participants practice ‘leave no trace’ or ‘low impact’ camping, but they are still impacting the soils each night as they set up camp. By teaching them to give attention to soil bacteria, large amounts of impacted area can be recovered.”

Niehaus lives the lessons she teaches—she is camping this summer on Bureau of Land Management property on the park’s border near the small town of Torrey. The roads have been washed out most of the time, so she has been backpacking to the area she’s exploring and asking locals about secrets to road access.

“Just the other day I brought out some beautiful chunks of petrified logs and branches,” she says. “Right now though, mission number one is locating this skeleton.”

Pieces of the elusive sauropod were first found by one of her friends about ten years ago, but the location has since been lost. Niehaus believes it’s near the east end of the park. Rain has made the search tricky, and it interrupted her work for a while. During that time, she began working for American Trilobite Suppliers (ATS), Inc., digging in their quarry for trilobites, crinoids, algae, and sponges.

ATS also sponsors the annual Trilobite Jam, four days of fossil collecting by amateurs and serious collectors in Utah. Niehaus says it is a “festival for paleontologists and fossil hunters,” and a great place to make connections.

“I traded my time, muscle, and experience as a professional desert wilderness guide for my admission to the festival. It was a spectacular experience! I made several career contacts, met amazing new peers and friends, and found many specimens for Mount Holyoke,” she says. Niehaus has even been invited to conduct studies for Mount Holyoke at ATS's Wolcott-Rust Quarry in upstate New York.

Even if she doesn’t find her sauropod before the summer’s end, she has already found her passion and now knows what she wants to spend her life doing. Niehaus will present her research at the annual LEAP Symposium on October 14.

“I am all about the journey to the destination. I have discovered that I love both my paleontological studies and the land management issues that surround my academic interests,” she says. “I will definitely pursue paleontology and lobbying for environmental issues my whole life, even if I am employed in the field of biology.”