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Monday, October 01, 2012 9:11 PM

Ottawa grad experiences Jurassic internship at dig site

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer

Darrah Jorgensen had no trouble digging up an adventure this summer.

The 2011 Ottawa High School graduate spent six weeks at the world-renowned Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyo., excavating dinosaur bones from the Jurassic Period.

It was a dream internship for Jorgensen, a sophomore at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D., who said she has wanted to be a paleontologist since she was a young girl.

“My parents (Blake and Kelly Jorgensen) took me to Field Museum in Chicago when I was 6 years old to see a T-Rex found in the Black Hills in South Dakota,” Jorgensen said. “While I was at the museum, I talked with a paleontologist for about two hours. It was so cool.”

Jorgensen said that experience convinced her she would become a paleontologist one day. Paleontology is the study of prehistoric life, which includes examining fossils.

A member of the School of Mines’ Paleontology Club, Jorgensen said she prepared dinosaur fossils for removal, as well as lab prep work. The dig site Jorgensen worked at included fossils of four types of dinosaurs: Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplosaurus and Allosaurus. All four dinosaurs are from the Jurassic Period, which took place 199.6 million to 145.5 million years ago.

“The Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus and Diplosaurus had long necks and long tails,” Jorgensen said. “The Allosaurus was the predator of the time. It was a little like a T-Rex, but smaller.”

Jorgensen said dinosaur fossils typically are located in one of two ways.

“Some are found through prospecting in formations where we know this rock is going to contain fossils, and we look for them,” Jorgensen said. “Most are found by accident. Sometimes [road construction] workers will dig out a road and find them.”

In addition to learning the techniques paleontologists use to remove dinosaur bones, Jorgensen said, she had the opportunity to prepare some of the fossils for lab study by using an air chisel that used air pressure to chip away rock from the bone without damaging it.

“I used a dental pick and toothbrush to brush the softer rock away,” she said.

Jorgensen, 19, was among 14 interns who worked with the center’s staff during the summer dig from July 9 through Aug. 15 — living in dormitory-style accommodations, she said.

“We would start in the morning at 8 and would come back at 5, four days a week,” Jorgensen said. “My four days were Fridays through Mondays.”

Jorgensen said her father — South Dakota native and current Ottawa Mayor Blake Jorgensen — encouraged her to check out the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in the Black Hills. Jorgensen said the school was the right fit for her.

“The Black Hills are really cool,” Jorgensen said. “There are a lot of geological mysteries here.”

Jorgensen said she is balancing heavy doses of math and science courses with humanities studies while at the school. She said paleontology plays an important role in today’s world.

“Knowing our Earth’s history can influence how people live today,” Jorgensen said. “Understanding climate change and how animals lived then can help us understand how climates are going to change down the road. We can look at our renewable resources and find alternative ways of living.”

Doug Carder is senior writer for The Herald. Email him at dcarder@ottawaherald.com

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