Cowboy Rides in for Dinosaur Bone Roundup

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's been a big summer thus far for dinosaurs. In the South Dakota Badlands, a team thinks they may have found the site of three triceratops skeletons.

The Discovery Channel has been shooting a new series entitled "Reign of the Dinosaurs."

And in a remote corner of southeastern Utah, Luis Chiappe, one of the world's top dinosaur hunters, returned to a popular quarry of his.

Chiappe -- director of the Dinosaur Institute and curator of the department of Vertebrate Paleontology of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County -- brought a team of about two dozen people, including grad students and other noted dinosaur discoverers Rodolfo Coria, Jim Clark and Cathy Forster.

But soon after arriving, he realized that the site he wanted everyone to work on was encased in too much stubborn sandstone.

Sledgehammers, jackhammers -- all were futile in the fight to free the precious bone bed, where parts of at least one giant sauropod are known to rest.

Time was of the essence for Chiappe, who is busy preparing for next year's big unveiling of his museum's new dinosaur hall. So what did he do?

Called in a local cowboy and his 90,000-pound horse, aka the Caterpillar 330-L Track Excavator.

Royce Herrmann -- who lives just over the border in Colorado -- is a folksy, funny, heavy-machinery operator with a light touch. He'd never tried to free a dinosaur before, but you'd never have known it as he thundered toward the site in what looked like some modern-day mechanical version of the sauropods the scientists were searching for.

Organizing boulders to create a personal path up the mountain, Herrmann at first made the process look easy.

Yet, once in position, the stubborn slab of sandstone still resisted.
Colorado cowboy Royce Herrmann
Chris Epting for AOL News
Colorado cowboy Royce Herrmann, who helped save the day for a famous Dino hunter.

He conferred with Chiappe and together, the erudite Argentinean scientist and the crafty Colorado cowboy formulated a plan: climb even higher and attack the slab from the top.

Staring up at the hill before the final push, a twinkle in his eye, Herrmann was asked if he had any reservations about the extreme (and extremely dangerous) procedure. "We'll get it," he told AOL News as he calmly took a sip of black coffee. "Might be tricky and it's gonna be tough to get that rock to break -- but we'll get it."

A moment later, he was back in the cab, smiling calmly as he negotiated what seemed like an impossible climb.

Defying parts of both gravity and logic, at times tilting sideways on one tread, the cowboy negotiated his machine to the top.

But would his beast be able to conquer what nature had built over tens of millions of years?

The battle was on.

Roaring, straining, teetering and yawning as its teeth attacked tons of rock, the machine raged against the earth with a calm cowboy at the controls.

The ground quivered. At times it felt as if the hillside might give way.

But the cowboy shouldered on, sly grin intact as he pushed her to the limit in the muggy, gray drizzle.

After almost an entire day of ferocious digging, clearing and pounding, the hill blinked. Herrmann at last found the sweet spot and deftly peeled back the massive slab, exposing the site in all its glory.

The next day, the team would be in the quarry, helping to reveal a treasure trove of dinosaur bones.

All thanks to the cowboy.

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