The Dinosaur Hunters

The fossil, a vertebra from a big Jurassic plant eater, was nothing special. The world is full of those pieces of backbone: They're big and tough and survive the elements better than the delicate little stuff that Lace Honert prefers. Lace likes to look for prehistoric plants, flowers, birds. And skulls. A sauropod's skull -- that would be something. Not a vertebra. Not by itself.

Even so, she wasn't going to leave the bone exposed to a Colorado summer. It had lasted around 150 million years, but the rock at her dinosaur quarry was silty, crumbly stuff, and this vertebra was the same texture. In a rainstorm, it would behave like the rock in which it was embedded. It would turn to mud, melt and be gone forever.

So in July '95, before Lace headed home to Houston, she was wrapping that vertebra and other exposed fossils in big sheets of protective plastic. Like much of dinosaur hunting, the job wasn't glamorous, and it involved serious manual labor. That vertebra, for instance, was embedded in a hunk of rock the size of a bathtub, and to wrap the thing well, Lace had to wedge the plastic underneath the rock. She's muscular and seems too young for the white streaks in her hair, but she's not that big, and decades of wrangling big rocks have left her with a herniated disk and a fragile right arm.

Still, her partners weren't around, and she wasn't about to summon help. The quarry's closest neighbor, a guy she calls "Psycho Bob," isn't the kind you ask for favors. Besides, Lace prides herself on toughness. One time at the quarry, she'd been hanging upside down in a pit, using Krazy Glue to secure a fragile fossil. A drop fell into her eye and sealed it shut. One of her partners, Japheth Boyce -- the cute kid, she thinks of him, even though he's 42 -- wanted to rush her to the hospital. Lace refused. First, she wanted to finish shoring up the piece she was working on. That took three hours. Then, and only then, did she allow Japh to drive her. That's the kind of person Lace is.

So today, she was securing the vertebra alone. She wrapped it in tin foil, then covered that with plaster of Paris, then burlap, then plastic. Last came the hard part: lifting the heavy rock enough to get the plastic underneath. She braced herself and pushed.

And then she saw, stuck to the bottom of the vertebra, the teeth. Big, long, skinny teeth, the size of her index finger.

She tried to be calm. She tried to be rational. Teeth might mean....
Couldn't be, she told herself. Couldn't possibly be. "My God," she thought. "What other part of the body has teeth?"

Skull. Teeth might mean skull.

Paleontologists dream of assembling complete fossil skeletons, and the skull is usually the hardest piece of the puzzle. Dinosaur skulls are relatively thin and complicated, made of little bones that are easily separated, easily destroyed and easily overlooked.

Lace called her partners: her husband, Jim, back home in Houston; David Worthington, the paleontology enthusiast whose money helped buy the quarry; and Japh, a fossil marketer who might eventually sell the find. They'd bought the property only a few months earlier, and the teeth might indicate their second big find. On the other side of the quarry, they'd already uncovered part of a camarasaur, another long-necked plant eater.

But these pencil-shaped teeth indicated something more familiar: an apatosaur. Close your eyes and think "dinosaur," and that's probably what you see. It's the sweet-looking plant eater of kids' videos, the long-necked herbivore of The Land Before Time and Fantasia. It used to be known as the brontosaur, back when Sinclair Oil adopted one as its logo and Cary Grant assembled a skeleton in Bringing Up Baby. "The iconic dinosaur," Stephen Jay Gould calls it.

Apatosaur skulls are particularly tricky. The apatosaur was a pinhead, with a head no bigger than the skinniest part of its neck, so the skull bones are extremely hard to find. In the 1880s, O.C. Marsh, the apatosaur's discoverer, topped a skeleton with the wrong head: that of the blunt-faced camarasaur. His mistake wasn't caught until the 1970s. And to date, paleontologists consider only two apatosaur skulls "reasonably complete."

Now, Lace hoped, she had a third. And maybe the best one of all.

The discovery would be a coup for any dinosaur hunter, but it was especially delicious for Lace, whose resume is light on academic credentials and heavy on life experience. Growing up in Chicago in the '50s, she liked science museums but not school. She dropped out after eighth grade, and in her teens, hitchhiked to Alaska, where she supported herself as a waitress. But that was only her day job. Her real aim in life was to mine for gold.

In 1978, she was driving with a friend to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, the big annual gathering of geologists and paleontologists. In South Dakota, they stopped to pick up Jim Honert, a wiry, talkative guy. He was on a buying trip for Black Hills Mineral Supply, a company he'd formed with his friend Peter Larson. While students at the South Dakota School of Mines, Jim and Peter had filled a warehouse full of fossils and geological samples, and people showed up and began buying the things. Starting a company beat getting a real job, Jim figured, so he and Peter became a corporation.

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