SOMERS — Chris Noto has dug dinosaurs for as long as he can remember.
“My parents tell me that I was talking about being a paleontologist when I was 3 years old,” said Noto, who will start his sixth year as a professor of biological sciences at UW-Parkside this fall.
And for the past six summers, he has really been digging dinosaurs.
Since 2010 Noto has participated in a fossil dig near Dallas, Texas. The excavation, on land where a developer is building nearly 1,000 homes, has yielded a wealth of fossils and bone fragments from creatures that lived almost 100 million years ago.
“This site is just rich with fossils,” said Noto, in a phone interview from Texas. “It has an amazing amount of material. The opportunity to work at a place with a diverse, quality environment is what keeps me coming back here.”
Noto was first lured to the Texas site by a colleague from the nearby University of Texas-Arlington. The colleague died in an accident in 2013 and Noto became director of the annual excavation.
The dig, called the Arlington Archosaur Site (AAS), is on private land. The digging is done by a crew of between 10 and 15 amateur paleontologists and community members. The site actually was discovered by three amateur fossil hunters.
“This is one of the few digs in the nation where members of the public can assist,” Noto said. “These folks are very passionate about what they are doing.”
Between June and July, Noto and the folks head out each day at 7 a.m. hoping to find more finds.
What they have found along a 100-foot hillside are the scattered remains and remnants of a nearly-complete, prehistoric ecosystem somewhere between 95 and 100 million years old.
Back then, most of Texas was covered by a shallow sea, and Dallas-Fort Worth was full of river deltas and brackish swamps teeming with dinosaurs, crocodiles, turtles, mammals, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, and plants. And, without a doubt, the crocodiles were the leaders of the pack, Noto said.
Crocodiles there measured between 18 and 20 feet long and fed on turtles and small dinosaurs, he said. Turtle shells and dinosaur bones found in the dig had crocodile teeth marks on them, he said.
“Yes, these were dinosaur-eating crocodiles,” Noto said. “The crocodiles were the major predators here. The crocodiles were king. They would crack turtles like a nutcracker.”
Noto’s team includes Thomas Adams, curator of paleontology and geology at the Witte Museum in San Antonio.
According to Adams, the Texas site is very interesting because it’s from the middle of the Cretaceous Period, while most other digs are from either the early or late Cretaceous. Very little is known about what occurred between the early and late stages of that period, Adams said.
“The diversity of fossils and the number of species being discovered at the AAS are providing a true picture of an ancient coastal ecosystem that existed 95 million years ago,” Adams said.
“The records we have about that time period are a bit murky,” Noto agreed. “This site is helping fill in the gaps.”
Work at the site will continue next summer thanks to a $30,000 grant from the National Geographic Society. Digs like the AAS are important, Noto said, because they are the best way for us to find out about ourselves.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity to make a contribution to our knowledge of this moment in time,” he said. “It’s a great challenge, sorting through what we have found and what it means. It’s a wonderful opportunity for discovery.”
For Noto, making a great discovery in the field or in the lab is almost as good as hitting a game-winning home run, running a mile in less than four minutes, or scoring the winning touchdown.
“Late last summer we had some significant discoveries, and I was practically jumping up and down,” he said. “Some things can just blow your mind.”