Spartans Unearth Possible Dinosaur Fossils in West Texas

A group of Spartans explorers who recently returned from an unforgettable four-day fossil dig made a  potential discovery of a lifetime. While meticulously searching for signs of ancient life on a remote ranch near Terlingua, John Wells ’26 spotted an unusual shape sticking out of the dry ground. The recent rain washed enough dirt away to reveal something below the surface.

St. Stephen’s Upper School Biology instructor Dean Mohlman said the students and their paleontologist guide, Scott Clark, kept gently chipping away at the ground around the object, which looked like a large dinosaur fossil. It was porous and spongy in places and looked drastically different from a rock. The object measured about 18 inches long and appeared to be a humerus or scapula. Clark believes the fossil may have belonged to a Hadrosaur, and plans to make a trip to Austin soon to conduct further analysis at the J.J. Pickle Research Center. 

“I remember discovering this bone and just being awestruck that for the first time, it was no longer stories of dinosaurs or documentaries, but you get to be the first human to ever lay their hands on something 72 million years old,” said Wells. “It's an unparalleled experience and I'm so fortunate to be one of the many students that had the privilege to do this.”

As Wells and the team dug deeper, they discovered a vertebrae lying close beside the first fossil and a metatarsal, a bone in the center of the foot, likely from the same dinosaur. 

“I couldn’t believe it!” said Mohlman, who has been taking Spartans to the same piece of land for about 20 years, thanks to relationships he made with retired science teachers who had formed a connection many years ago with the private landowner.

The annual trip to West Texas has been very fruitful for Spartans before. In 2014, St. Stephen's students were recognized by the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University for unearthing never before seen dinosaur fossils of an Oviraptor on the same land. Mohlman was on that trip as well. 

This year, Mohlman, Film and Theatre Instructor Mike Dolan, Upper School Physics Instructor Ace Furman and Director of Outdoor Education Charlton Perry chaperoned the group of 13 Upper School students through the unique hands-on learning experience. Retired science teacher and published paleontologist Larry Millar was also a guide for years, but was unable to make this trip. Each teenager had to apply to participate, by submitting written remarks explaining what they could contribute to the journey.

“They don’t have to be a fossil nerd,” said Mohlman. “Just [tell us] what skills do you bring to the table? It may be cooperation, making meals, good nature, a keen eye. Last year, a student sent a picture of himself flexing to show his strength.”

The mix of day and boarding students, representing all Upper School grades, left Austin armed with camping gear and filled with excitement for the journey they were about to embark on. They drove seven hours, set up tents, built campfires, played cards, roasted s’mores and slept under the stars at the Rancho Topanga Campgrounds in Terlingua. Annie Ehrlich ’26 enjoyed many aspects of the trip, from the thrill of finding fossils to seeing a pack of javelinas run across the desert.

“This trip gave us a glimpse into how paleontologists work in the field, provided an engaging hands-on experience that brought to life what we have learned in many St. Stephen's classes, and gave us the chance to feel the excitement of making new discoveries together,” said Ehrlich.
Once the dig was complete, the team planted ocotillo cacti in former excavation sites to restore the Chihuahuan Desert's natural ecosystem, and placed rocks along the trail that leads to the dig site to prevent further erosion. The group returned to The Hill grateful for the invaluable time together and eye-opening lessons learned in the field.

“Going on these trips and having these opportunities is part of what makes St. Stephen's such a special place,” said Wells.

The students and faculty are grateful to the generous donors who make these research trips possible and free to participate in through monetary gifts and grants.
Address: 6500 St. Stephen's Dr., Austin, TX 78746
Phone: (512) 327-1213