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Digging for Dinosaurs in Mexico

International partnership brings scientists, volunteers together to study paleontology

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.

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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. The challenge, he says, is to manage and market wisely. ``Prospecting, excavating, and assembling fossils is so very labor intensive that we depend on volunteers. Bones are not like oil - there's no industry subsidy for paleontologists.''

For a financial backing, Hernandez went north to Dinamation. For management, he looked to Coahuila's Department of Education.

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Administrator Rosario Gomez Nunez, a paleontologist and educator, enlisted a network of volunteers and students. ``For future science teachers, this kind of field work has no equal,'' Ms. Gomez says. ``Plus when we work with Dinamation and become friends with their American participants, we also get something you cannot find in a classroom.''

Coahuila's governor, Rogelio Monemayor Seguy, has created a department of paleontology as a division under the state's secretary of public education and placed thousands of hectares under government protection. Local school teachers now routinely bring students to the fossil quarries and incorporate paleontology into the curriculum with the help of Gomez and her staff.

The byproduct goes beyond science, explains Gomez. ``It is a wonderful teaching tool for the children, but just as important it brings a sense of pride where they live, who they are,'' she says.

At the village of Rincon Colorado, near one of Hernandez's dinosaur quarries, volunteers recently built a museum and visitor center to display some of the discoveries. Two weeks before the opening, the governor donated paint and building materials to villagers for sprucing up their homes to match the museum's shine. As an outgrowth of Dinamation's work in Mexico, Coahuila and Colorado are finalizing a sister-state partnership.

But as hopeful as this flurry of interest appears to Hernandez, he remains cautious, since he believes the future of paleontological development depends on domestic, not international, support.

``What we need is to put in the mind of our people, right here in Mexico, that digging for dinosaurs is as good a vacation as waiting in line at Disneyland,'' he says.

Just why are the mile-high deserts of north-central Mexico rich in dinosaur remains? They were not always deserts, Hernandez says. About 70 million years ago during the upper Crustaceous period, he theorizes, the land near Saltillo was a delta at the confluence of a fist of several rivers.

The tropical brackish estuaries provided all the links in the food chain of plant-eaters like Hadrosaur and the meat-eating Tyrannosaur, that predated them. And the mucky sediments of the delta offered the perfect medium in which to fossilize dinosaur bones.

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