The colorful mesas, buttes, and badlands before you compose a natural work of art—the Painted Desert.
Wind and running water cut these features from the Chinle Formation deposited over 200 million years ago when this area was a vast inland basin near sea level. The colors are due to ancient environmental conditions in which the sediments were originally deposited as well as the type of minerals present in the rocks.
Besides being colorful, the Chinle Formation contains a valuable fossil record of Late Triassic plants and animals ranging from ferns and shellfish to amphibians and dinosaurs. Members of the scientific community from all over the world come here to study fossils.
Consistently locating fossils requires special knowledge of geology and paleontology—and a bit of luck! But bringing home the find may present the biggest challenge to researchers. Fossils usually lie in the remote areas far from museums, universities, and roads. Their large size makes them particularly heavy, and the fragility brought on by their great age requires that they be handled with extreme care.
Researchers frequently discover fossils by finding a fragment of bone protruding from a cliff or bank. After removing the covering earth—first with picks and shovels, and then more carefully with dental tools and brushes—scientists may harden the fossil bones with a chemical solution. A complete covering of burlap and plaster bandages protects the fossil from damage during shipment to the laboratory.
Detailed drawings, photographs, and documentation accompany each step of the operation to help reconstruct the fossil for study and exhibition.