SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah (AP) — Jeanette Bonnell likes to play in the dirt. The 62-year-old retired human resources specialist is also pretty handy with a dentist's drill.
Those two qualities, combined with fine attention to detail and a little detective work, make her the perfect volunteer for the Natural History Museum of Utah's paleontology department.
"I worked for 30 years behind a desk and when I retired, I said no more," Bonnell said while whisking away layers of dirt deposited in an ancient pond 300 million years ago in a remote location just outside what is now Canyonlands National Park. "The experience of finding your first fossil is indescribable."
Paleontologists come from around the world to a Utah landscape rich with bones of ancient creatures, but not everybody doing the digging, cleaning the fossils and even making the discoveries has a fancy title in front of their name.
"We have amazing volunteers. They discover fossils, they excavate fossils and back in the lab they prep them out," said Carrie Levitt, paleontology collections manager at the Utah museum. "We would not be able to do the work we do as paleontologists without the volunteers."
As a kid, Erin Finney loved visiting the museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. He was particularly fascinated with the dinosaurs. So it is no surprise Finney ended up being the one who kids visiting the Natural History Museum of Utah now dream of becoming when they grow up.
"What kid doesn't love fossils?" said Finney, a seasoned volunteer in both the prep lab and on field trips with the museum's paleontology department.
Last year while scouting possible dig sites in San Juan County, Finney found an important discovery on a steep slope: several fish fossils. With so many fossils in the same area the team refocused its efforts like crime scene detectives.
Their efforts paid off when what appears to be the snout of a phytosaur — a crocodile-like creature — was discovered sticking out of the cliff.
On the same trip Finney stumbled upon half of a limb bone of a hadrosaur, a duckbill dinosaur. He then spent hours looking for, and eventually finding, the other half of the bone.
"I didn't know exactly what it was at the time, but I knew it was good," he said.
The Beehive State provides a plethora of fossils and is well known among paleontologists.
"Utah is the best place in North America to find fossils of almost any age," Randy Irmis, paleontology curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
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