I stopped by Dinosaur National Monument (wiki entry here) on the way out to the FASEB Summer Conference with Felix, our post-doc that we are sharing with Ed. Dinosaur National Monument has always been a Mecca of sorts for me. When we lived in Texas, I always wanted to visit on our annual summer trips up to Glacier National Park and one summer, much to my delight, we did. Kids seem to have an almost universal fascination and love for dinosaurs and I was no exception then and now.
There is something magical about visualizing how these animals must have moved and interacted with their environment and I would love to know how these animals visual systems worked. Unfortunately, soft tissues do not tend to fossilize and we really have no idea how these animals saw the world other than studying the skulls of dinosaurs which give clues as to how their eyes were positioned, moved and where the nerves ran through their skulls. These clues suggest to Kent Stevens that some dinosaurs had binocular vision.
The retinal anatomy is entirely unknown, but if current theories on how dinosaurs evolved are correct, dinosaur retinas might have resembled that of birds which ironically might have been much more sophisticated retinas than the retinas of modern humans. However, molecular biological research by Belinda Chang into the genetic sequence of visual opsins in living vertebrates including alligators, lampreys and modern birds have suggested that the visual rhodopsin of the common ancestor archosaur protein absorbs light at 508 nm. This is more red than modern vertebrates which might suggest that their night or scotopic vision was better than modern vertebrates.
The park is just past Vernal, Utah and is relatively easy to get to provided you are driving in that part of the country. Initially I had planned on flying to Aspen, but decided to drive to the FASEB meeting to save money by driving out our post-doc Felix and myself. Felix seemed up to this as he seems to be visiting National Parks of late.
The drive over from Salt Lake City can be done in about three hours and we spent some time hiking and exploring a small portion of the park as we did have to get to the meeting. Unfortunately, the visitors center at the park has been condemned and closed due to structural failure. This really was dissappointing as I had wanted to photograph the rock that comprises one wall of the visitors center and contains thousands of dinosaur bones in a Jurassic era river bed called the Morrison formation.
I don’t know what will become of the Visitors Center, but my hope is that it can either be repaired or replaced as it is one of a few places in the world where visitors can see dramatic evidence of this many dinosaur bones as they are discovered in the Morrison formation. I worry however that with the dramatic drops in funding for the National Park Service over the past few years and the increasing commercialization in the National Parks under the George W. Bush administration, that structures and services such as these will go lacking, leaving a whole generation of American children without educational opportunities that previous generations have had.
Despite the closure of the visitors center, we were able to walk/hike around and find some additional fossils including sauropod bones embedded in portions of the Morrison formation outside of the visitors center.
Additionally, Dinosaur National Monument is home to hundreds of petroglyphs created by indigenous populations hundreds to thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, it too has suffered because of lack of funds and oversight in the park due to vandalization. The ignorance of some people boggles the mind as to how they can go about defacing and destroying forever, historical links to our past.
Fortunately, not all petroglyphs have suffered this fate and there are many others around the park that are documented and undocumented. One can only hope that efforts are made to preserve and document these amazing historical images. These particular petroglyphs were originally created by the Fremont Indians around 800 years ago.