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.

Lace adored Jim. Jim adored Lace. After two days, they were buying pictures to hang in the house they'd share. After two weeks, they were married.

Lace went to work at Black Hills, which that year struck dinosaur gold at a creekbed, a spot now known as the Ruth Mason Quarry, one of the most significant fossil sites in the United States. The bed of bones stretches for two miles and contains an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 dinosaur skeletons, many of them duckbills. (Two of the skeletons Lace and Jim dug there now reside at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.)

Unfortunately, striking dinosaur gold isn't the same thing as striking it rich, and Lace and Jim wanted a family. First they had a boy, then a girl, and in 1981, Jim took a job at Shell Oil, in Houston. Lace landed a laid-back gig as a live-in ranch caretaker in nearby Magnolia, where she tried to be the perfect stay-at-home mom. She looked down on her working friends -- their kids would grow up to be drug addicts, hers would be perfect -- but secretly, she itched to get back to her real work. During school holidays, she dragged the kids on fossil hunts. The kids didn't tell their friends. They didn't think anyone would believe them.

The kids didn't grow up perfect, but they grew up well enough. Finally, Lace was free to dig bones for months at a time, leaving Jim to work in Houston while she excavated fossil fish and flowers, hunted for fossil turtles and rhino teeth, and searched for even bigger scores. In Vernal, Utah, just outside Dinosaur National Monument, she and Jim found a lovely old building available for a good price. They bought it 20 minutes after meeting the real estate agent, and Lace set up a gallery-cum-fossil shop where she and the paid help could sell her treasures during dinosaur tourist season, from May to September. She called the shop Remains To Be Seen.

On a scouting trip to northern Colorado, not far from the shop, she fossil-hunted on a mountain in the Morrison Formation, one of the world's richest boneyards. She glory-holed, striking the dinosaur equivalent of gold: a Jurassic lakebed whose red silt was full of bones. "We gotta get this land," she told Jim on the phone. "Gotta get this land." They recruited Dave and Japh and bought 45 acres of the mountainside from a rancher for a few hundred thousand dollars. They had their quarry, and in August 1995, Jurassic Corporation was officially born.

Significantly, it's a corporation, a for-profit enterprise. The partners don't think they'll get rich -- the costs are too high, the hours too long -- but they do reserve the right to sell their finds to whomever they please. To some academics, the very idea is repugnant. In its statement on ethics, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology condemns selling a scientifically significant fossil to anything other than a public institution; putting it in a private collection "deprives both the public and professionals of important specimens, which are part of our natural heritage."

In some ways, the argument seems beside the point for Jurassic Corp. Not many private collectors have room to display an apatosaur. In life, a full-grown one measured around 75 feet from snout to tail; its skeleton is too big even for Bill Gates's living room. And so far, Jurassic Corp.'s one major sale, the camarasaur, has been to a public institution, a museum in Spain. But Japh wants to keep his options open. He points out that the same large corporations that buy major works of art could buy a dinosaur skeleton for similar reasons; an oil company, for instance, might display an apatosaur in its headquarters lobby.

Jim thinks it's silly to worry that private collectors will somehow strip the world of its fossils. "There's only about 50 billion out there," he says. "Fossils aren't rare. That's a myth museums have propagated, a high voodoo thing." What's rare, he says, are the people able to find and dig dinosaurs. He compares the process to reassembling a crashed 747 -- only the dinosaur pieces are embedded in rock.

As Lace sees it, Jurassic Corp. is protecting the bones, saving exposed ones from the weather, carefully keeping whole skeletons together, recording information about her site. "It's all about the science," she says. And: "Paleontology doesn't have the luxury of time. Once a fossil is exposed to the weather, it's gone."

She reserves choice words for the Bureau of Land Management, which allows federal lands to be clear-cut and strip-mined by private companies, but won't issue permits to private fossil collectors. As a poke at the bluenoses, she considered naming her fossil shop Bones of Contention; she took the high road partly because Remains To Be Seen seemed more marketable.

She has only praise, though, for one of the most respected paleontologists in the field, and one who's helping Jurassic Corp. Starting in the early '60s, Robert Bakker led the insurgence that completely changed the way we look at dinosaurs. As a Yale undergraduate, he began arguing that dinosaurs didn't deserve their reputation as sluggish, badly adapted reptiles. According to Bakker, dinos were warm-blooded, more like birds than crocodiles, fast-moving and so well adapted to their environment that it's no wonder they ruled the earth for so long. Survival favors the fittest, he notes, and for about 150 million years, dinosaurs firmly dominated their furball rivals.

Back in 1986, Bakker called his first book The Dinosaur Heresies and was considered the bad boy of paleontology. But science, like evolution, favors the fittest, and Bakker's explanations fit the fossil record better than those of his elders. Now his theories are the dinosaur orthodoxy, the science of Little Golden Books and Dino-mation.

The apatosaur, a.k.a. brontosaur, played a significant role in Bakker's thinking. The scientist noted that the brontosaur has compact feet like an elephant, not wide-toed feet like a rhino, and he pooh-poohed the theory that the brontosaur's bulk kept it confined to swamps, where water could support it. Bakker also attacked the idea that brontosaurs ate only mushy marsh plants; yes, he noted, the beast's head and teeth were small, too small to chew the enormous amount of food a body of that size requires -- but what if brontosaurs had gizzards with gullet stones, à la chickens? That sort of digestive system would allow them to consume more food, the kind of serious calories a hot-blooded, fast-moving dino would require.

Nowadays, Bakker comes across as an aging enfant terrible still anxious to bedevil his more conservative colleagues. He cultivates a long, Old Testament beard and wears a cowboy hat for TV appearances; he's said to be the model for the eccentric bearded scientist in Jurassic Park. When he lectures, he takes questions only from children.

In Wyoming, Bakker and his teams have unearthed, among other fossils, an apatosaur. Bakker's apatosaur skull is the best found to date, even more complete than the one held by Dinosaur National Monument -- so complete that it even includes the tiny bone of the beast's ears. Now, as Lace chips her own apatosaur's skull out of stone, she uses plaster casts of Bakker's as a guide; looking at Bakker's teeth or jawbone gives her a better idea of what her own might look like and how she might best extract the pieces. Bakker didn't have to share his casts with the for-profit Jurassic Corp. -- lots of universities wouldn't, Dinosaur National Monument wouldn't -- but he did. Lace considers him a hero.

In the fall of '95, Lace returned to the quarry to begin excavating the skull, or at least, what she hoped was the skull. She followed the standard procedure, assuming that the whole skull was there and trying to remove a big-enough hunk of rock to contain all the bones. For almost a month, she chipped away at her target area, digging down to carve a shape something like a ball on a pedestal. She saved even small rocks that she removed from the pit; there was always a chance they might contain something interesting.

After about a month she was ready to remove the ball, all 1,700 pounds of it, from the ground. Japh operated the company backhoe while Lace stayed with the rock, minding the chains, praying that everything worked. Lifting such a rock is nerve-racking; a thousand things can go wrong and potentially ruin the fossil. Lace told Japh to do this, to do that; he didn't listen. "He was being so man," she remembers.

The stresses added up, and when the rock emerged in one piece, instead of relief she felt a great adrenaline rush. A friend from the Forest Service snapped a photo just after the triumphal moment. Japh is smiling. Lace looks evil.

Japh wanted to move the rock down from the hill and into a truck. But Lace wasn't up for it, not then. She smoked her first cigarette in ten years. If she'd had heroin, she says, she'd have shot it. She threw what she terms "a little tantrum" and stomped off to the nearest town. The rock stayed on top of the hill.

That night eight inches of snow fell. Not until it had melted could they load their prize into a trailer and haul it to Houston. The storm, Lace figures, was nature's payback for her bad behavior.

But the skull was hers, or at least hers to prepare. She drove it and other, smaller pieces to her warehouse in Magnolia. From the 1,700-pound rock, she extracted only one piece of the skull -- one of the bits that would have been near the top of the head -- and a neck vertebra. Near the vertebra, they found the occipital, the funny knobbed bone at the back of the head. Not a bad haul, but not as much as Lace had hoped.

She decided to unwrap some of the smaller rocks that had surrounded the 1,700-pounder. As she removed the tin foil on one, she gasped: Right on the surface, on the bottom part that she hadn't seen when wrapping, there glinted a tooth, black against the red rock. In that rock, she also found the premax, officially the "premaxilla," the bone just above the mouth. And she suspects there's more.

Now the remains of both those rocks, and many of their brethren, sit in the warehouse behind Lace and Jim's bungalow, holding God knows how much of the skull. Jim spent the Christmas holidays transforming their garage into a prep room, a place where Lace uses dental tools to do the tedious work of removing the skull from the rock. To finish extracting just the occipital will take about two months.

When Jurassic Corp. has recovered about 40 percent of the skeleton -- enough to indicate that the beast is close to complete -- Japh will begin trying to sell it, most likely to a museum that will organize its own diggers to finish removing the beast. (The Spanish museum brings crews of twentysomethings to the site, industrious kids looking for an adventure. So far, the museum has dug about 70 percent of its camarasaur, and Jim figures it's likely to recover a good bit more.)

One of Jurassic's next steps will be figuring out which apatosaur the skull belongs to. So far, that part of the quarry has yielded the pelvises of at least three -- all female, one of them a juvenile. (Lace is rooting for the baby; Japh is hoping not to find too many other individuals' bones mixed in, which would make for a harder digging and reassembly job.) It's not clear how any of the apatosaurs' bodies ended up in the lakebed -- they could have been dragged in by a predator or washed up in a flood -- and it looks like another dinosaur walked on the body, crushing and scattering the bits. But the lake's silty bottom appears to have been fairly stable; Jim and Japh seem confident that almost all the skeleton's pieces are there for the finding.

Sometime later this year, Japh will begin looking for a buyer. Jim Wyatt is a commercial dealer based in Garland, Texas; his sells everything from ammonites to T. rexes via the Internet. He estimates that if an apatosaur skeleton is out of the ground and 75 percent complete, it would command at least $125,000 -- more if the bones are in good shape.

But at this point, Japh is reluctant to guess how much Jurassic Corp.'s apatosaur might sell for. There are too many variables: he can't yet say how much of the skeleton the company can guarantee, how much of the skull they'll be able to offer, or even how the world economy will be running in a few months. The price will also depend on how much work Jurassic Corp. has to do; obviously, if the buyer does some of the digging and preparation, the price will be lower.

The price, though, isn't everything. Japh notes that the apatosaur's marrow cavities are filled with agate -- a rarity. Were he simply trying to make the most money possible, he'd leave science to hang and sell the agate to jewelers ounce by ounce.

Still, the money matters. Lace would like to keep all of her fossils, but she also wants to buy more equipment, to spend more time looking for bones, to survive financially as a dinosaur hunter. Survival, of course, is the bottom line. And if being fast-moving and hot-blooded helps her beat the competition, so be it.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >