Digging for Dinosaurs in Mexico International Partnership Brings Scientists, Volunteers Together to Study Paleontology

Article excerpt

A GROUP of eight American amateur paleontologists crouch in a hollow of the mile-high Rincon Colorado Desert, set to prospect one of the world's richest, yet untapped fossil fields.

The desert appears as a rolling tapestry of bland scrub and rusty rubble stone. With a whisk broom and dental pick, Jose Ignacio Gonzales maneuvers around a knob poking out of the hardened sediment. "Femur, probably," he says, noting the interior grain of a fossilized chunk of thigh bone where marrow of a 20-ton plant-eater once was.

Mr. Gonzales is part of an international team of scientists, educators, and volunteers committed to explore and safeguard one of Mexico's unrecognized resources. The Dinamation Corporation and the state government of Coahuila recently entered a partnership to cultivate paleontology in Mexico. The goal is to involve foreigners and Mexicans into a brand of ecotourism that dovetails with legitimate science.

Some may recognize Dinamation as the California maker of roaring robotic dinosaurs that have delighted youngsters in museum shows for nearly a decade. In 1988, however, Dinamation founder Chris Mays established the Colorado-based Dinamation International Society (DIS), a nonprofit organization charged with engaging the public in the sciences, especially dinosaur paleontology. DIS now has the largest participant dinosaur program in the world, bringing people and prehistory together from Wyoming to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina - in six countries on four continents. Volunteers assist with excavating fossils, cataloging, site mapping, and post-dig laboratory work.

The Dinamation-Coahuila model breaks past paleontological precedent. North American museums have mined for dinosaurs in Mexico before, but this is the first time that not a single discovery will be shipped north, DIS executive director Mike Perry notes.

"What typically happens is the fossils end up gathering dust in a university basement or collecting admission charges in a big-city museum. Either way the country where they originated loses out. Dinamation's way is to keep them here, in local hands," he says.

The economic contribution of Dinamation's expeditions is minor when set against the backdrop of Mexico's hamstrung economy - where $10 per day is a coveted wage and unemployment is soaring. But Mr. Perry explains, "It's major when you're among the field guides, educators, and hotel staff whose job gets the boost."

The senior man in charge of the fossil quarries is University of Mexico paleontologist and author Rene Hernandez Rivera, a wiry man with a nose for old bones and a knack for making alliances. "We have a kind of eighth wonder of the world here with our paleontological wealth," Professor Hernandez says. …