Pentaceratops take flight in recovery effort

Noel Lyn Smith

BISTI/DE-NA-ZIN WILDERNESS – All eyes were on the sky as helicopters airlifted two Pentaceratops fossils from the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area and the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area on Thursday.

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter carries the remains of an adult Pentaceratops on Oct. 29 in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness  south of Farmington.

A Pentaceratops is a five-horned herbivore dinosaur from the late Cretaceous period that was discovered in New Mexico in the 1920s.

In July 2011, Amanda Cantrell, geoscience collections manager at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, discovered the first juvenile Pentaceratops skeleton.

Her discovery, along with an adult Pentaceratops skull found in 2013, were extracted from the area. The fossils are about 73 million years old.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science is the repository for paleontological resources from Bureau of Land Management lands in the state, and the museum's chief curator secured the necessary permits to excavate and airlift the fossils.

Cargo containing a juvenile Pentaceratops skeleton is flown from the Bisti/De-Na-Z...

The dinosaurs were encased in large plastered blocks, then rigged in cargo netting for two UH-60 Black Hawks to airlift to a parking lot in the Bisti.

After the cargo was delivered to the parking lot, each one was lifted by a crane onto a flatbed truck for transportation to the museum.

Sgt. James Ray, left, and Staff Sgt. Noe Amador with the New Mexico Army National Guard's 1116th Transportation Company on Oct. 29 secure the remains of a Pentaceratops to a flatbed trailer in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness south of Farmington.

Cantrell was on a paleontological survey in 2011 when she found the skeleton.

"I saw the skull bones first," she said. "Every paleontologist's dream is to find a skull. They tell us a lot about the animals."

She added the remains were easy to notice because the fossils are darker than the stream channel in the Bisti.

Because the skeleton is small, it was easily identified as a juvenile, but the museum staff will have a better idea about its approximate age once the fossils are cleaned, she said.

“I’m so happy to see it finally out of the ground. It’s so relieving,” Cantrell said, adding she was planning on following the flatbed truck to Albuquerque.

In preparation for Thursday's recovery, Cantrell and others excavated the bones and hand carried burlap and plaster to wrap the remains.

She said the supplies were hand carried because the area has restrictions on vehicle access and the types of tools that can be used.

A group of people watches on Oct. 29 as a Black Hawk helicopter carries a piece of an adult Pentaceratops out of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness south of Farmington.

The museum's research associate, Robert Sullivan, discovered the adult Pentaceratops skull in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah in 2013.

Both locations where the dinosaurs were found are managed by the BLM. Phil Gensler, regional paleontologist for the BLM, was among those who watched the delivery.

“Today is the end day of a three-year process. …They’re both important scientifically. They’re going to tell us a little bit more about what the Pentaceratops looked like and how it developed,” Gensler said.

Because both dinosaurs were discovered in protected areas, the BLM had completed a number of analyses to make sure the remains were properly collected and were not impacting other resources along the Bisti and Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah, he said.

Joe Vigil, public affairs officer for the New Mexico National Guard, said his organization became involved with the recovery effort after the museum approached the Guard in April.

A Black Hawk helicopter on Oct. 29 carries a piece of a Pentaceratops to waiting members of the the New Mexico National Guard's 1116th Transportation Company in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness south of Farmington.

Army National Guard Aviation soldiers from Company C, 1-171st Aviation Regiment based in Santa Fe flew the Black Hawks. Additional assistance was provided by the 1116th Transportation Company from Farmington.

“We waited until today because of the rainy season. We didn’t want to encounter problems,” Vigil said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.