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IN OUR OWN BACKYARD Museum finds massive dinosaur north of Marmarth
August 15, 2014
By BRYCE MARTIN | Pioneer Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Beyond its educational, maze-like displays and entertaining splendor lay a series of rooms at the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman to which few from the general public are privy.
Rows and rows of tan-colored drawers and cabinets, strung along several separate rooms, make up the Bowman museum’s collections area. Its contents tell a whole different story of their own – a story that began tens of millions of years ago.
Scientists from around the world use the contents of those collection rooms to help tell stories of how life lived so long ago and to bring new light to places on the globe that have remained shrouded in mystery and academic ambiguity.
Top universities such as Yale and world-famous museums such as the Smithsonian often call on Bowman’s impressive collections to aid in research for a variety of topics, notably for paleontology, the study of fossils and early life.
But how are these materials amassed by the museum? One answer to that question exists today at an active dig site located 30 miles north of Marmarth.
In the field: Finding a dinosaur
A 63-million-year-old skeleton of a hadrosaur was found three years ago on a massive stretch of private land in the Badlands north of Marmarth. It was discovered exclusively by the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum.
A team of volunteers, led by Dean Pearson, left Bowman in the early morning hours Aug. 2 and headed out to an approximately 20-foot by 20-foot sized area in the Badlands. French paleontologist Antoine Bercovici, 32, of Paris, who had helped with several of the museum’s digs and research in the past, also joined the group to lend his expertise and another helping hand.
Once onsite, the team’s objective was to continue excavating the ancient discovery – a long process that had been put on hold over the winter – and to stabilize it for transport.
Prior years of painstaking digging led the group to find at the site the largest, most complete hadrosaur body ever discovered by the museum.
A hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur, was an herbivore, or plant eater, commonly found in Asia, Europe and North America. The body, specifically of the hadrosaur found by the museum, reached up to 40 feet in length and could weigh over 10 tons.
Split into two plaster casts, the body of the dinosaur was found without its head and tail. Pearson, who serves as the chairman of the museum’s board of directors, said he was optimistic those would eventually be found, though obviously could make no guarantee. The body of the creature rested on its back, with its legs upwards.
A single rib of the dinosaur was located outside of its body, next to the torso, which provided another component of the trip – to transport that rib, which had previously been casted, for preparation in the museum’s lab.
Much to the disappointment of the group, however, the rib crumbled when volunteers attempted to flip it. Ironstone had accumulated and attached to its bottom and resulted in its destruction.
But the passing hours at the site brought more hope as the team discovered two additional bones – a heavy, three-foot long scapula and a lengthy, slender bone called an ischium, which connects in the dinosaur’s abdomen. Both were found below where the dinosaur’s tail section would be.
Pearson said the team already plans for future visits to the site over the upcoming weeks to finish digging the entire area, weather permitting.
The majority of the digging at the site was completed in 2012, at which time the museum attracted the attention of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute of Chevy Chase, Md. The site was featured in a bio-interactive educational series made possible through the institute, established to illustrate the scientific principle of dinosaur extinction for seventh through ninth-grade students.
A wrap was placed on the hadrosaur’s torso to preserve it but further work was stymied as the area went through a particularly wet season. Since then, the dinosaur was sitting out, relatively untouched, for two years.
The fate of the dinosaur’s final resting place, be it at the museum or elsewhere, rests in the hands of the land’s owner.
“If the landowner wants to sell it, he has the right to because it’s on his property,” Pearson said. “If the landowner wants to donate it to the museum, we just don’t have the staff right now to prep it in two years. It may sit there for 20 years before it’s prepped just because it takes a lot of hours to prep these things.
A 20-year wait may sound drastic, but the museum has a lot of other things to keep its paleontology lab occupied.
Right now, the museum has artifacts and fossils scattered from South Dakota all the way up to south of Medora. Since collection efforts began in 1983, Pearson said he and volunteers of the museum have walked 90 percent of that area, with the exception of some private land because those landowners wouldn’t grant the museum permission to go on their property.
That’s how dinosaur fossils are found: by walking. It’s a tedious process of following one bone back to the next, Pearson said.
When a group goes to find a dinosaur, or another fossilized specimen, the first thing to complete is research to find the areas that would produce dinosaur fossils.
Then they walk the area.
Once something is found, the dirt lying on top of the fossil, also called the overburden, must be removed.
“Sometimes you get lucky, like this one; it doesn’t have much (overburden),” Pearson said.
Pearson said he and his team have excavated dinosaurs before where they had to move 38 feet of dirt on top first, which most of the time is done by hand, with pick and shovel.
A basement is essentially dug on top of the discovery to get it out. The bone is left in place because it would be fractured in many pieces, according to Pearson.
Glue is put on top of the bone for stability and then a trench is dug all the way around the bones until there is wide enough space to wrap it in plaster.
Pearson said it’s important to dig deep enough to the point where there is still dirt attached to the bone and far enough below where it’s not going to hit the bone. Then it’s dug underneath, wrapped in burlap and plaster and then rolled over.
When it’s all done, it’s wrapped up like a cocoon.
Once the dinosaur is found and a team starts digging, it takes an average of about 1,000 hours to get it out of the ground, Pearson said. It takes about another 1,000 hours to get it curated in the lab. And about 1,000 hours to get it either cataloged and put in collections or casted for display. That’s typical for most museums.
“If we had five or six people that were working on it all the time, like bigger places, what would normally take those institutions one season to prepare may take us ten,” Pearson said.
BACK TO THE MUSEUM: Analyzing the discovery
Uncovering a dinosaur clearly is no easy task.
Once it’s located, which is a process of its own, it takes thousands of hours of manpower for the museum to merely expose what was found, let alone completely extracting those items from the earth.
But when they’re completely removed, casted and transported to the museum, more work begins on the bones and it takes further manpower to piece together the puzzle extracted from the field.
At the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum’s paleontology lab, the process that was completed in the field to ready a dinosaur for transport is then reversed.
Once they obtain the casted creature, volunteers have to dig off all the dirt, using dental tools, picks, brushes and small awls. Everything is cleaned off and recovered with a temporary plaster wrap to ensure it’s stable. The bones are then flipped over and the process is repeated. Once all the dirt is off, the dinosaur can be curated.
There are two choices for how to proceed.
The dinosaur bones can either be left in collections to use for research or they can be put on display. However, because the bones are extremely heavy in most cases, Pearson said the course of action usually tends to creating a cast molding and putting the cast on display to assemble the dinosaur.
“You really don’t want to put real bone on display unless you’ve got some sort of interior hold on it because the bone is heavy and you need to have it temperature and humidity controlled to keep it from falling around,” he said. “It’s much better to leave the original specimen in the drawers in the collection room.”
The popular triceratops currently standing on display at the museum is considered a replica, which is a cast made from the bones discovered by the museum.
“For the average public, they can’t tell the difference,” Pearson added.
How PTRM gained its worldwide visibility
Few may realize how far stretched the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum is into the world of science research, especially when it comes to paleontology.
While several museum displays boast some impressive dinosaur fossils or replicas, the true historic majesty lies within the museum’s collection rooms and are not for public display.
Ranging from a 70-million-year-old tooth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex to microscopic specs recovered from areas of study around the county, these pieces of history are for research and mostly appreciated by the scientists who study them.
Because of the hard work of volunteers and various community members, the museum was shaped into much more than just a community treasure – it’s a scientific institution in its own right.
Concerning the general Bowman County community, Pearson said he believed people understand the museum does work in paleontology, but that it’s probably not widely known how much the museum is involved in the international research community.
A program did exist beginning several years ago when the museum would take people out to some of its active dig sites for a fee, but that subsided about two years ago. A lack of personnel and the number of active sites needing to be available put the kybosh on the program, despite its popularity.
“It’s educational, but it’s entertaining,” Pearson said. “It’s hard to do deep science when you have people along that are not really interested in the science, but more in what it has to offer.”
Pearson has been digging for dinosaurs and other ancient creatures for years. He and Merle Clark, who also serves on the museum board, had the idea of establishing a paleontology lab at the museum before there even was a museum. A class was put together in the spring of 1991 with Nancy and Terry Schaefer of Bowman, who also helped on several digs including finding the hadrosaur, as the first two participants. Over the years, it grew and attracted more interest from many more around the area.
“When we got the museum and built the paleontology lab, we set up the parameters and made contact with the scientists and everything sort of went from there,” Pearson said.
Since he began searching for fossils in 1983, Pearson said they’ve had roughly 1,200 sites that recovered everything from prehistoric turtles and leaves to dinosaurs, with so much in between.
The largest finding by the museum was made south of Marmarth in 1990, around the time the film “Jurassic Park” was released, Pearson said. It was a Tyrannosaurs Rex, which catapulted the museum into the limelight. Pearson and museum members were subsequently interviewed by big-name media personalities, such as Jane Pauley, and spread word of the museum’s scientific activities.
“We were the only ones in the nation that had an active T-Rex dig at the time the movie was released,” he said.
The museum took a stand years ago to promote itself as being noncommercial, which meant the museum would never be involved in the trading hands of money. It was decided instead that they would work with academia and invitations were extended to scientists and others in the field to come to North Dakota and work with the museum.
“Pretty soon they started coming in and working with us,” Pearson explained. “It turned out to be a wonderful deal.”
How ‘Jurassic Park’ lied to you
One shouldn’t expect movie stars the likes of Sam Neill or Laura Dern to have too much experience in digging up a dinosaur.
The original 1990 film “Jurassic Park,” based upon the Michael Crichton novel, became an instant blockbuster after it was released but, for those in the scientific community, it left a lot to be desired.
After they filmed three separate movies in the multimillion-dollar dinosaur movie franchise, it seemed most of the actual true-to-life science was left out.
Are we to expect the same next year when the hotly anticipated fourth installment, “Jurassic World,” hits theatres across the country? Probably (but it’s still good entertainment).
“I like ‘Jurassic Park’ for the sense it made a lot of awareness on dinosaurs,” Dean Pearson said. “It made dinosaurs cool.”
The film was plagued by some pretty major inaccuracies in an attempt to entertain audiences, most notably it’s name.
A lot of the dinosaurs featured in the movie were from a period of dinosaurs other than the Jurassic period; filmmakers may have considered naming the film “Cretaceous Park.” Though that doesn’t have quite the same ring.
For Pearson, the biggest problem was an early scene in the film where two of the movie’s main stars excavate a dinosaur from dirt by using paintbrushes. The result was a perfectly formed raptor.
“That doesn’t happen,” Pearson said.
Another big issue was with the extinct plants growing vibrantly in the dinosaur park.
Trees don’t produce DNA, according to Pearson, which means it would be impossible to reproduce a tree or plant that no longer exists.
As for the way mosquitos trapped in amber allowed scientists to extract dinosaur DNA – nope, can’t happen.
“We brought some amber in from south of Rhame, back in late 1980s, took a bunch and sent it off for study,” Pearson said.
Scientists fractured the amber to see what percentage of original atmosphere was trapped in the bubbles. They determined that there was so much minor fracturing it could not contain any original air anymore; it was all contaminated.
And the way that scientists in the beginning of the film used vibrations to see any dinosaurs that were under the earth’s crust was impossible.
Ground penetrating radar doesn’t work, according to Pearson. Soil is so full of iron that it would be like taking an X-ray, which would be completely dark because it can’t penetrate the material.
Despite its appeal from an entertainment perspective, there was actually a serious downside to the film, aside from its historical inaccuracies.
The film told everybody that you could make big money on dinosaurs, Pearson said. And so there was a sudden rush to southwest North Dakota for everybody wanting to develop their own “Jurassic Park.”
Land that was once available to the museum ended up being taken away and given to someone else because they offered money for exclusive rights to look on that land.
“A lot of us had land that we were working on that we got removed from,” he said.
What kinds of dinosaurs did we have around here?
Where the hadrosaur was found in Marmarth by PTRM is called the Hell Creek Formation. The dinosaurs recovered by the museum there were from what’s called the Crustaceous Age’s late Maastrichtian period, or the very end of the time of dinosaurs.
During that time there existed ceratopsians, in the form of torosaurus and triceratops. Large theropods, such as the T-Rex, also lived during that time. And there was a multitude of small raptor-type dinosaurs, though nothing of the size that was depicted in “Jurassic Park.”
Prior to the Maastrichtian Age, there existed troodons and paronychodons, which were likely six feet tall.
The museum has collections of teeth or body parts from many in those ages.
The Triassic Age was the period of time when dinosaurs first evolved, which was followed by the Jurassic Age and then the Cretaceous.
When the area of Bowman County was laid down, it was done so in a series of beds. The Hell Creek formation exists under the city of Bowman, but it’s 900 feet below the surface.
As the Rocky Mountains formed, they created wrinkles as they lifted. The easiest way to demonstrate those wrinkles is if a tablecloth is placed on a table, with hands on the tabletop, and it’s pushed – on the other side of the table is going to create a wrinkle, which is called an anticline.
There’s an anticline that runs from southeast of Buffalo, S.D. to about Glendive, Mont., which is where oil collects and is recovered.
When driving from Bowman to Marmarth on Highway 12, a person is positioned at the surface of the formation. As they drive along, they’re approaching older formations and ultimately the Hell Creek once they reach Marmarth. Then back out again on the other side.
Even though Rhame is topographically the highest elevated town in the state of North Dakota based on elevation, driving from Bowman to Marmarth is actually proceeding subsurface geologically due to the anticline. Because of this phenomenon, once in Marmarth, they would be 900-feet lower than Bowman.
“That’s why we have dinosaurs in Marmarth and not in Bowman,” said Dean Pearson. “If there was no anticline, Marmarth wouldn’t have had dinosaurs either.”
When the area was under a 500-foot deep ocean about 73 million years ago, the Peer Shale Formation was laid down.
If that formation is searched, a person would find marine items – such as clams, seashells and fish that lived there.
When the seaway retreated, as the Rocky Mountains lifted, it raised the water and formed beach sands.
After the beach sands left, the next thing that happened was the creation of the backwater marshes and swamps, which is was composes the Hell Creek Formation.
Dinosaurs existed there on dry land and in the swamps.
When dinosaurs died, at the end of the Hell Creek Formation, that’s considered the Crustaceous-Tertiary Boundary, which is when an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, according to Pearson.Back