Richardson looks out over a valley in the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument in Utah: "There are bones all over this place." – BETHANY MOLLENKOF/Los Angeles Times/MCT
Scott Richardson is up at dawn, standing atop a rocky ridgeline near his base camp, a solitary figure in the slanting light. He surveys a primordial wilderness of dry creek beds and stands of juniper and pinyon pine. “This is dinosaur country,” he says, gesturing toward the valley below. “There are bones all over this place.”
He cooks bacon on a camp stove, the sizzle breaking the silence. He then hops into his work truck for a bumpy trek deeper into the outback. He parks near a spot he wants to explore. The 58-year-old Arizona native, dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and white clothes for protection from the sun, walks past darting lizards. He swats at the maddening gnats that hover like paparazzi as he follows a closed road left to revert to its natural state.
Just off the path, an object catches his eye. An odd, almost oval shape pokes from the dirt, and he quickly determines it’s a 75-million-year-old hadrosaur vertebra. The fossil is caked with dirt, and it looks like any other rock. But not to Richardson: He’s seen numerous similarly shaped bones and recognises the object’s size and heft.
He drags his fingers over the fragment and explains that it came from the top of the creature’s spine, near its neck. “This is what it’s all about,” he says. “If you brushed around and dug some holes, you might find other bones going into the ground. There might be a whole animal here.”
Richardson is a dinosaur finder, a bone prospector on the hunt for prehistoric predators and their prey. Six months each year, from March to September, he works as a palaeontologist's technician for the Federal Bureau Of Land Management.
He ranges across the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and helps dig bone quarries. He pieces together fragments in a lab – puzzles with no images to guide him. Most of the time, he trudges among the scrub brush, always vigilant, searching for a hint – a different colour, texture or shape – that suggests a dinosaur’s grave might lie somewhere beneath.