Jurassic Desert

Funded: $25,980

-Preserving Zion’s Fossils Forever-

Millions of years of geologic history make up the canyons of Zion National Park. While many park-goers know Zion for its glowing red cliffs, there is a deeper story hidden inside the canyon’s thick rock walls. 

Over 180 million years ago, Zion was home to dinosaurs, reptilians, and small mammals, and while protected from collecting by federal law, most visitors would be surprised to learn the park is host to numerous fossil sites. 

“Zion has an extraordinary record of the early Mesozoic during the origin and rise to dominance of the dinosaur through an interval of extraordinary climate change ranging from Late Triassic rainforests to the vast Early Jurassic deserts reflected by the fossil sand dunes forming the cliffs of Zion Canyon.” –James Kirkland, State Paleontologist, Utah Geologic Survey 

Due to their delicate nature, the park doesn’t advertise many dinosaur tracks or fossil locations, and many are also under threat from natural forces. 

Rockfalls, rain, and flowing water pose a real threat to many of the known sites in the park. The forces of erosion are ever-present, but new 3D modeling can help rangers and park scientists preserve samples and share them with the world. 

Currently, scientists who can’t be in the field study photographs and detailed notes or, at great expense, make short visits to actual fossil locations. This project would fund the team and equipment needed to head into the backcountry and document many known and prominent sites in full 3D. The images would also be shared publicly online, aiding in the ability to conduct remote research in Zion. Using new modeling technology, images from high-resolution cameras can be stitched together into “point clouds” and then into high-resolution 3D images of fossil sites and dinosaur tracks, aiding in faster track and fossil identifications. The models would also be rendered using 3D printers for museums and other interpretive park displays. 

This initiative will hire graduate-level research students through a park youth- corps science program giving them valuable experience in a highly competitive field. 

“Now leading these studies, I know the importance of internship opportunities like this. I participated in the same program when I was younger. It put me on a path to working in the parks. Having this kind of hands-on experience takes already qualified candidates to the next level in such highly competitive fields. It helps set students up for future success.” –Robyn Henderek, Physical Scientist, Zion National Park 

With your help, park staff and graduate students will do the hard work of crawling under cliffs, along the walls, and on the rock floors of Zion Canyon capturing detailed 3D models of some of the most exposed and vulnerable examples of fossils and tracks anywhere in the nation and then sharing those findings with the world.