11. Future Research

The excavation of Seismosaurus hallorum  has ended, but the laboratory phase is just beginning. The four cervical vertebrae, the last bones to be discovered and removed from the quarry, are safely secured in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque, where they will be repaired and prepared for study along with many of the other bones of the skeleton. Quite likely, no more bones will be found at the site and we will restore the quarry to a natural condition. Occasionally, paleontologists and hikers will visit the site, and perhaps eventually more bones will give a hint of their presence, owing to ongoing forces of erosion.

At least a dozen other dinosaur skeletons (or at least isolated bones) have been discovered in the Ojito Wilderness Study Area since the 1979 discovery of Sam. Some are sauropods. All deserve attention and some may warrant full excavation. One or several might be another individual of our new genus, Seismosaurus , but making such an identification may be impossible without considerable field investigation and excavation. Other skeletons could be new to science, too, representing new genera. Many of the secrets of the Ojito thus remain to be discovered.

Remote sensing tests, such as those we used at Sam's quarry, might be applied to advantage at these other sites. With each new field application, the technology will improve, and the limits of resolution will be pushed to smaller and smaller dimensions. Soon perhaps we will be able to confidently locate skeletons in the ground before turning the first shovel or bringing in the jackhammers. Such technology holds the promise of locating all the bones in a site, establishing the boundaries of an anticipated excavation, and even locating sites now buried and not evident from the ground's surface.

Meanwhile, we will turn our attention almost entirely to laboratory work on the bones, a task that will take roughly ten years for me and my (largely) volunteer crew to complete, absent direct funding of the work. Each bone must be freed from its stone matrix and prepared with painstaking precision before it can be fully studied. With the preparation of each new bone, more of Sam's anatomy can be described and compared to other dinosaurs, and we will improve our understanding of this one skeleton, this new genus. This slow and deliberate work requires skill and no small measure of patience. By the time this phase of the project is finished, we will have dedicated a major portion of our lives to this one remarkable dinosaur.

Simultaneously, experiments in the chemistry of preservation will continue to yield new and important data on the processes by which bone becomes fossil. At present, Los Alamos scientists are delving into the role of fluorine in the geochemical history of burial, to determine how fast bone can absorb this element and the limits of saturation under natural conditions. Our broad theory of fossilization will be tested, modified, and tested again.

Isolation of organic components such as proteins on Sam's bones (and, likely, on bones from other sites) will continue to occupy some of the researchers. The potential for expanding these applications into realms unimagined only a decade ago is high indeed. Proteins and genetic material, if they can be isolated and studied in detail, promise to be the first independent test of the patterns of evolution established on morphological grounds.

Meanwhile, we have a wealth of data on (and specimens of) documented gastroliths that could be compared with and used to test the identity of putative gastroliths at other dinosaur sites. All sorts of questions as to the selection and use by dinosaurs of these stomach stones remain to be answered. And with those answers will come a better understanding of dinosaur anatomy, physiology, diet, and possibly even behavior.

With each discovery and with each experiment, dinosaur bones give us a firmer picture of a remarkable chapter in biological evolution. Sam's existence as one of many sauropods in the Jurassic may have been minor and relatively insignificant in the ecology of the time, but the fossil remains of Sam are scientific treasures. What more may lay hidden in the sandstones of the Ojito? And what more may lay hidden elsewhere in the West?

Holiday centerpiece, December 1989. Wilson Bechtel appealing to the great god of dinosaur fossils for a complete skeleton, using the ischium and its core holes as a centerpiece.