Mar
07
2013

The discovery of Como Bluff: Wyoming's rich and historic dinosaur graveyard

Como Bluff c. 1879: William Harlow Reed stands before the expanse of the eroded anticline in southeastern Wyoming where he discovered dinosaur remains on March 7, 1877. When Samuel Williston arrived to supervise and organize the quarrying of the rich fossil deposits for Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh, he was told that "the bones are by the ton and extend for six or seven miles!". Watercolor by Arthur Lakes.
Como Bluff c. 1879: William Harlow Reed stands before the expanse of the eroded anticline in southeastern Wyoming where he discovered dinosaur remains on March 7, 1877. When Samuel Williston arrived to supervise and organize the quarrying of the rich fossil deposits for Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh, he was told that "the bones are by the ton and extend for six or seven miles!". Watercolor by Arthur Lakes.Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University
On this day in 1877, railroad worker William Harlow Reed came over a ridge-top with the remains of a freshly killed antelope slung over his shoulder, and spotted huge fossilized bones exposed on the side of the steep bluff located a half-mile south of Como Station, a desolate railroad stop on the High Plains of Wyoming. It was a discovery that would forever change his life.

Reed and station master, William Carlin, began collecting up as much as they could, dreaming of money and employment other than railroad work. They waited several months before announcing the discovery in a letter to Yale professor Othniel C. Marsh, at the time one of America's prominent paleontologists. When a crate of bones - along with the guarantee of many more - arrived at Yale, Marsh realized they were dinosaur remains and hired both men to excavate and send him as much as they could, and to keep out any interlopers to his claim. Marsh knew if he could keep it secret - at least for a short time - the fossils at Como Bluff could give him a huge advantage in his rivalry with Philadelphia paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, and their notorious Bone Wars.

Geology of Como Bluff and environs: Diagram created by the American Museum of Natural History, c. 1900.
Geology of Como Bluff and environs: Diagram created by the American Museum of Natural History, c. 1900.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The dinosaur-rich strata at Como Bluff (the Morrison Formation) are found in the exposed flanks of an anticline (an upward fold), the center of which has been carved out by erosion [see diagram]. All three periods of the Mesozoic Era (Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous) are represented in the rock layers found there. Besides dinosaurs, fossils of fish, crocodiles, flying and swimming reptiles have also been found there. A significant number of important Late Jurassic mammalian fossils were discovered and collected by William Reed from Quarry 9 on the east end of Como. Reed also discovered and removed the great Brontosaurus excelsus skeleton that stands today in Yale's Peabody Museum.

Professor Marsh visits Como Bluff: Yale paleontologist, O. C. Marsh (right), lunches with his field workers, William Harlow Reed (center), and Edward Ashley (left) during his 1879 visit to the quarries at Como Bluff. Painting by Arthur Lakes.
Professor Marsh visits Como Bluff: Yale paleontologist, O. C. Marsh (right), lunches with his field workers, William Harlow Reed (center), and Edward Ashley (left) during his 1879 visit to the quarries at Como Bluff. Painting by Arthur Lakes.Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University
In the years following its discovery hundreds of tons of dinosaur remains quarried at Como Bluff were shipped to Yale and other institutions pushing America into the forefront of vertebrate paleontology, and heavily influencing how museums would be constructed throughout the world. Former denizens of Como Bluff: The American Museum of Natural History's iconic Allosaurus displayed in its fantastic pose over the remains of an Apatosaurus. Both specimens were collected at Como Bluff, the Allosaurus in 1879 by F. F. Hubbell (for E. D. Cope) and the Apatosaurus in 1897 by an AMNH field crew.
Former denizens of Como Bluff: The American Museum of Natural History's iconic Allosaurus displayed in its fantastic pose over the remains of an Apatosaurus. Both specimens were collected at Como Bluff, the Allosaurus in 1879 by F. F. Hubbell (for E. D. Cope) and the Apatosaurus in 1897 by an AMNH field crew.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History have several mounted specimens found at Como Bluff as does the Smithsonian in our nation's capitol. Well-known genera like Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus are just a few of the dinosaurs pulled from the mudstones and sandstones at Como Bluff. In the early 20th century it was thought that Como had exhausted its supply of dinosaur remains and exploration there for the most part tapered off for several decades. But in recent years, paleontologist Robert Bakker has been re-examining the quarries and uncovering additional secrets still buried in the Jurassic bluffs at Como.

Como Bluff today: The same year dinosaurs fossils were discovered at Como Bluff two other major dinosaur discoveries occurred in Colorado, one near the town of Morrison, and another farther south in Garden Park. Along with Como Bluff, the three sites were battlegrounds for the famous Bone Wars. Paleontologist Samuel Williston was present at all three sites in the early months of their discovery and said Como Bluff was the earliest.
Como Bluff today: The same year dinosaurs fossils were discovered at Como Bluff two other major dinosaur discoveries occurred in Colorado, one near the town of Morrison, and another farther south in Garden Park. Along with Como Bluff, the three sites were battlegrounds for the famous Bone Wars. Paleontologist Samuel Williston was present at all three sites in the early months of their discovery and said Como Bluff was the earliest.Courtesy Mark Ryan
William Reed worked for Marsh for several more years and the two men remained friends until the Yale professor's death in 1899. Reed continued in the field of paleontology, working independently, and for a time with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He finished out his career as a popular geology professor and museum curator at the University of Wyoming, just sixty miles from Como Bluff, the great dinosaur graveyard that changed not only the course his life but also that of American paleontology.

Como Bluff was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It's also been designated as one of Wyoming's National Natural Landmarks by the National Park Service.

LINKS
Biography of William Harlow Reed

Marsh's Dinosaurs: The Collections from Como Bluff

Discovering Dinosaurs in the Old West: the Field Journals of Arthur Lakes

Journal of a recent dinosaur dig at Como Bluff

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Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

wayne stenberg's picture
wayne stenberg says:

How do you explain dna in bones that are sold old?

posted on Fri, 03/08/2013 - 11:28am
mdr's picture
mdr says:

There have been reports that scientists are closing in on that possibility but I don't know that DNA has yet been found (and verified) in any dinosaur bones. Residues of protein and collagen, however, have been noticed after fossil bone was demineralized in the lab. The discovery surprised scientists and could mean we'll have to re-adjust our way of thinking about how the processes of decay and fossilization work.

posted on Fri, 03/08/2013 - 4:16pm

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