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Paleontologist Lindsay Zanno spends much of her summer in remote southern Utah deserts, using brushes, picks, trowels and sometimes jack hammers to liberate 90-million-year-old bones from ancient sediments in a quest to identify new species of gigantic extinct reptiles and determine how they lived.
Utah is justly famous for dinosaur bones from various geological eras, including those familiar characters of the Jurassic, but Zanno is most interested in species unknown to science, many found in Utah's Cedar Mountain formation deposited 98 and 127 million years ago.
"We uncovered a whole new ecosystem that we haven't documented before," said Zanno, who will be the lead-off speaker for this weekend's DinoFest 2017 at the Natural History Museum of Utah. "Every skeleton we find is a new animal, a new turtle, multiple new dinosaurs, meat eaters and interesting plant eaters."
The events are open to the public for the price of admission to the museum. Activities include kid-oriented classes on building and drawing dinosaurs.
Zanno's keynote at noon Saturday, titled "Fearsome Continent: New Discoveries Reveal the Lost Cretaceous Worlds of North America," describes her team's recent dinosaur finds and explores how these animals may have lived at the dawn of the Late Cretaceous 98 million years ago.
Zanno will be joined by a dozen other paleontologists giving half-hour talks on their Utah-based work. Participants include the museum's paleontology curator Randy Irmis; state Paleontologist Jim Kirkland; Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument paleontologist Alan Titus; and Museum of Moab executive director John Foster.
Zanno's co-keynoter, Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, will speak to the importance of field work to dinosaur paleontology and the role of museum collections.
DinoFest includes an open house at the musuem's Paleo Prep Lab where volunteers and staff toil over specimens to prepare them for study. Attendees can also view the fossil collections and demonstrations of a new program called Research Quest that uses fossils from museum collections.
Just 1 percent of the museum's bone collection is ever put on public display, according to paleontology collections manager Carrie Levitt.
"There will be specimens that no one has seen before," Levitt said. "They will just be opened up. They might be the next new dinosaur species."
Added Zanno: "This is really to get people in Utah excited about their local resources and why it's important to study paleontology and protect the resources there. Utah has a key role to play in understanding these broad scientific questions around the world."
Now the curator of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Zanno did her graduate work at the University of Utah.
One mystery she hopes to unravel centers on the Late Cretaceous when endemic North American disappeared from the fossil record, only to be replaced by creatures that bore greater resemblance to Asian dinosaurs. Were these dinosaurs wiped out in an extinction event, she wonders, or were they gradually displaced by newcomers?
Curious dinophiles can learn more at noon Saturday and meet Zanno and other paleosleuths in person.
Where • Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City
When • Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 28-29 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.