Montana/Dakotas

<<Back to Fall/Winter 2010 Steward

2010 Paleo Season Productive

photos and story by Mark E. Jacobsen, Eastern Montana/Dakotas District

hadrosaur fossil 

Hadrosaur fossil.
 paleo excavation crew

 Crew members carefully separate the bones of a hadrosaur from its ancient streambed grave July 6.

The 2010 paleontological season proved to be a productive one for dinosaur hunters plying Eastern Montana’s Hell Creek formation.

“Again, it’s the year of the triceratops,” said BLM Archaeologist Doug Melton of the Miles City Field Office. “That seems to be the major focus for folks.”

Excavation teams working public lands must be federally-recognized repositories for paleontological specimens before they can be considered qualified to excavate on BLM-administered lands. According to Melton, this year’s numbers of federally-permitted institutions are down slightly; however those permittees currently in the field are finding plenty to them keep busy.

In Garfield County, the St. Louis Community College-Meramec from Missouri was among those institutions with a BLM permit working public lands. Field Supervisor and Physical Science-Geology faculty member Carl Campbell has been overseeing excavation operations north of Jordan for several years. Campbell supervised several groups of students and volunteers which rotated through the area in June and July, working at several locations.

Campbell and crew extracted a triceratops located on BLM land in June, which has since been transported back to the St. Louis Science Center preparation lab for preservation and study. The lab is located in a publicly-accessible setting where museum visitors can watch the preparators at work and ask questions.

“Originally I thought it might be a sub-adult but some of the bones are pretty big so it’s probably an adult,” said Campbell. “We took out about 60 bones but it’s the back half.”

Campbell said the skull is likely still in the hillside, if it is present at all. When excavators finished up for the season, there were only a couple of rib bones left protruding from the dirt; a tantalizing lead to more of the carcass.

“We’ll excavate in and follow the bones,” he said. “We’ll be working on that again next summer.”

Campbell also supervised volunteers in the excavation and removal of a hadrosaur specimen discovered by Miles City resident Gif Wood on private land.

The taxonomic grouping of Hadrosauridae is composed of multiple species referred to as duck-billed dinosaurs due to their typically broad, flat beaks which were well adapted to browsing.

The fossil was jokingly dubbed “Gif’s Duck” for the duration of the excavation; and was found on the crest of a hill, surrounded by active cropland. The associated sediments yielded still more clues as to what the area might have resembled, millions of years ago.

“We have a pretty good idea of what the paleo-geography looked like; it was on the edge of a streambed; it’s kind of draped over the channel sands. It looks like it just dropped right where it was,” said Campbell.  “It hasn’t been scavenged. It’s probably going to be a third to a half complete.”

St. Louis Community College staff has also been collecting data for an extensive paleo-geography project on the Hell Creek formation, an endeavor which will take several years and additional funding to complete.

“Our goal out here is to really do some serious three-dimensional mapping so we can figure out diversity,” said Campbell. “When you look at this, we only have maybe 10 or 15 percent of the Hell Creek formation left; it’s all been eroded away. Just think of all the dinosaurs that have been found in that 10 or 15 percent. If you multiply that up by nine times, then if you can layer it in 25 foot layers, you can get an idea of abundance and diversity over time. It’s been done in other areas, but it’s never really been done in this area --in any detail.”

Understanding the environment that existed during the dinosaur heyday --as well as the subsequent effects of natural processes-- adds vital information to the fossil record. Beating the odds of time, geology and erosion make it a statistically rare event when a semi-complete fossil specimen in recoverable condition is found, he said. However, the fact that so many specimens continue to be uncovered and retrieved is a testament to the innumerable life forms which inhabited ancient Montana.

In addition to the St. Louis Community college, other institutions with BLM permits are in the field this summer working in several Eastern Montana counties.

Staffs from the Museum of the Rockies and the University of Montana are working in Garfield and McCone counties. Field workers from Concordia College of Moorhead, Minn., the University of Washington from Seattle, Wash., and the University of California at Berkley are working in Garfield County, also.  

The Burpee Museum of Rockford, Ill., --excavators of the famous “Jane” T-rex-- are operating out of Carter County again this year, while Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History from New Haven, Conn., is collecting in Fallon County.

The BLM issues permits primarily for vertebrate fossil specimens (organisms with a backbone), and scientifically significant invertebrates (organisms without a backbone) and plant fossils.  The permits are generally issued only to professional paleontologists, who must agree to preserve their finds in a public museum, a college, or a university because of their relative rarity and scientific importance.

Visitors to public lands are welcome to collect reasonable amounts of common invertebrate and plant fossils without a BLM permit. No permit is needed for plant fossils, such as leaves, stems, and cones, or common invertebrate fossils, such as ammonites and trilobites. Petrified wood can be collected for personal use; up to 25 pounds each day plus one piece, but no more than 250 pounds in any calendar year.  These materials must be for the finder’s personal collection and cannot be sold or traded.