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Uncovering the Hidden Secrets of Fossils

Standing at Moab Museum beside a fossilized femur with a knee joint as big as my waist, I’m in awe of the massive size of this creature that lived 150 million years ago. Yet the shape of that Apatosaurus knee joint is remarkably similar to my own. Most of us understand that this knowledge was earned by a succession of discoveries and steadily improving technology over the last century but a key step in gaining that knowledge, preparation of the fossil for research and display, can be surprisingly low-tech. The “preparation” step involves careful removal of the rocky matrix or sediment from an embedded fossil. Some of this happens in the quarry but final preparation requires a facility called a “prep lab” where specialized techniques, materials and tools are used. This is where details of the fossil are revealed without damaging it, and sometimes dental picks are the tool of choice at the final stage.

Apatosaurus knee joint after preparation
Apatosaurus knee joint after preparation

Careful preparation of a well-preserved fossil can reveal the size and shape of muscle attachments, the location of nerve channels and possibly even give clues to the cause of death. Experienced paleontologists frequently recognize what creature left a partially-exposed fossil while it is still in the quarry. The experts know individual bones were part of a type of dinosaur or sometimes even a particular species because they have learned from the details of previously prepared fossils.

Moab had a small prep lab for two years at the Museum of Moab, now Moab Museum, funded by grants from the David B. Jones Foundation, Chuck Safris and Utah riends of Paleontology (UFOP). Thanks to a collaboration between Moab Museum, Moab Giants, Utah Friends of Paleontology (UFOP) and the BLM a new, more capable prep lab is being planned at the Moab Giants site about 8 miles north of Moab on US-191. We expect the new lab to be open for public viewing by Spring 2020. This new lab will continue to be staffed by UFOP volunteers and is expected to be open for public viewing during Moab Giants business hours. You can participate as a UFOP member and UFOP will train volunteers locally. You can learn more at the monthly UFOP meetings and hear presentations by professional paleontologists, free and open to the public, currently held on the last Wednesday of each month at 6 PM at Zions Bank, 330 South Main in Moab. You can learn more about UFOP at


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