India Wood Makes No Bones About It: Her Colorado Dinosaur Find Is a Real Monster

updated 01/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1984 01:00AM

Some children bring home stray dogs or cats, but when young India Wood started poking through the hills near a family friend's Colorado ranch, she eventually came back with a dinosaur. "When you're little and you're on vacation, adults like to send kids away so they can talk about adult stuff," India recalls of her beginnings as an amateur paleontologist. "So I was told to go hunt for dinosaurs." At age 8, she found mostly arrowheads and rocks, but small pieces of bone piqued her interest. At 11, she found her first dinosaur fossil—part of a stegosaurus pelvis. Then, at 13, she ran across a bone protruding from the ground very near her first find. India dug away carefully and made a rare and valuable discovery: pieces of an unusually well-preserved 150-million-year-old skeleton of a giant carnivorous allosaurus.

Returning to the fossil lode in northwestern Colorado during school vacations and weekends, India (who was named for a family friend) worked the site on her own for three years. Lugging chunks of rock back to her home in Colorado Springs, she sat amid bones piled on her bedroom carpet, poring over reference books from her own collection and the public library until she was sure she had identified her dinosaur. Then, in the spring of 1982, she carted five of the 18 bones from her collection to the Denver Museum of Natural History and left them there with the receptionist. Three days later curator Don Lindsey of the museum's paleontology division called. "When Don said, 'We'd be happy for you to work with us,' that was the highest compliment I could get," says India.

Sweltering some days in 103-degree heat, and working at night during gnat season to avoid the swarming pests, Wood, Lindsey and his son Jim, 18, dug for two more summers to unearth the remaining bones, which Lindsey estimates amount to 70 percent of the skeleton. The meat-eating reptile, which roamed the western interior of North America during the Jurassic period, weighed about five tons, according to Lindsey, measured 35 feet from tooth to tail and stood 15 feet tall. "The allosaurs were like coyotes," explains Wood. "They didn't go out and try to drag down something five times their size. They waited until something kicked off, and then they ate it." (Other theories hold that they were aggressive hunters.) The skeleton should be ready for exhibit in about two years, when it will become the first carnivorous dinosaur to be displayed at the Denver museum since its opening in 1908.

India, the youngest of four children, "was raised to be independent and responsible," says her mother, Nancy, 47, the author of a dozen books about the West. "I've always encouraged her never to take 'no' for an answer, not to be afraid to be seen as odd or different." Nancy and India's father, Myron, a noted photographer of the Southwest, divorced in 1969. India, a reader at 3, will graduate this spring with a B average from Fountain Valley School, whose headmaster, Timothy Knox, praises her as "an original—one of the most interesting, talented students I've met."

An all-around outdoorswoman, Wood likes skiing, hiking, riding and sailing. Her room sports records by both Bach and Elvis Costello, as well as a collection of empty bottles of imported beer (which her mother lets her drink at home). She once earned pocket money by catching tarantulas and garter snakes and selling them to pet stores; she later bought her own quarter horse, Roan's Babe, with money she made training horses.

India hopes to enter Dartmouth (where her boyfriend is a freshman) or Yale next fall, then go on to study paleontology in graduate school. "Paleontology has given me something to work toward instead of watching TV," says India. "I've had a lucky start in a competitive field. It's taught me an infinite amount of patience. I prepared 16 specimens at home recently, got them out of the rock and ready for exhibit. That takes time." Although she believes her allosaurus "may end up being one of the biggest ever found," India keeps things in perspective. "I don't go around saying, 'Hey, look at me—the big bone hunter,' " she says with a grin. "That's the last thing my friends and I talk about."

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