Dinosaur Diaries 2018
Most of you know I spend my summers in Montana digging up dinosaurs for the Carthage Institute of Paleontology. I have been volunteering on dinosaur digs since 2015 but this summer was special because I finally brought a group of my own students from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
What follows are photographs shot by myself and the crew as well as scans of the field journals with drawings, diagrams, and fossil finds. Enjoy!
A few quick acronyms and vocabulary to make this post easier to understand:
BLM: Beurau of Land Management: Federal lands where museums collect fossils.
CIP: Carthage Institute of Paleontology: Dr. Carr's institute
DDM: Dinosaur Discovery Museum: Houses CIP and exhibits their fossils.
Exposure: The sandy, clay bluffs of the badlands where dinosaurs are found
HCF: Hell Creek Formation: Geological formation containing dinosaurs in MT, WY, ND, and SD
MIAD: Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design: Where I work!
Prospecting: Hiking and searching for new fossils and quarries
Quarrying: The process of digging a large hole for removing many bones still in the ground
Surface Collect: Bones that are laying on top of land that don't need to be dug out
Trike: Shorthand term for Triceratops
The whole 2018 crew. From left to right.
Collin Sutton, John Caruso, Gordon Russell, Ari Stratman, Clare O'Malley, Myself, Sheyla Hernandez (on the side by side), MacKenna Mau, Emily Verbeten. These students all study either Industrial Design or Illustration
Elizabeth Ziesemer, Douglas Holbach, Brady Stefanski (Sorry if I spelled that wrong Brady), and Dr. Thomas Carr. These are all Vertebrate Paleontology track biology students.
Dr. Megan Seitz (CIP Preparator), Jenny Krantz (MIAD Study Abroad)
The interior of the Dinosaur Discovery Museum in Kenosha. The DDM houses the Carthage Institute of Paleontology who we volunteer for. They are a federal repository for fossils which means they hold fossils in the public trust the same way a civic art museum holds art. The fossils are collected from federal lands and are the property of the American people and are reserved for scientific and educational use. Top pick shows the imposing skull of the museum's T-rex cast, the bottom shows Dr. Carr lecturing students on the connection between dinosaurs and birds, the museum's main focus.
Dr. Carr is considered the worlds leading expert on the Tyrannosaurus rex. I met Dr. Carr when I was teaching at Carthage College after graduate school. I went on a dig with him in 2015 and we've been friends ever since.
*The DDM is free and has regular open hours, a dinosaur hall, you can see the lab, and there's lots of stuff for kids to do.
Fossils in the lab at the DDM waiting to be opened. We encase large fossils in plaster so they can be safely moved to Kenosha where they are cleaned, studied, and exhibited. There aren't a lot of resources in Montana, we bring everything we use, so sometimes you have to improvise. If a cambell's soup can is available to protect a fossil we'll use it. Often we use broken shovels and tent poles to brace fragile fossil jackets. When we run out of burlap we dip our clothes in the plaster and use them to wrap the bones. The normal supply chain we enjoy in our everyday lives is not available to us in Montana, we have to bring everything we need from Wisconsin.
This excerpt from my field journal documents the cladogram for the Tyrannosaurus rex and its ancestor-descendant relationship to the newly discovered Daspletosaurus Horneri. A cladogram is a branching diagram that depicts these ancestor-descendant relationships. The Horneri is essentially a smaller cousin of the T-rex. Dr. Carr is credited with proving these connections and named the dinosaur after Jack Horner, the paleontologist who did the consulting for the Jurrasic Park films.
Another page from my field journal documenting correct procedures for the excavation of dinosaur quarries. Obtaining accurate data from quarries is vitally important for scientific accuracy and the reconstruction of specimens. Dinosaurs are rarely found articulated (like the veloceraptor at the beginning of Jurrassic Park). Typically they are broken apart in what I usually describe as nature's worst jigsaw puzzle.
On the route between Milwaukee and Montana we got to make a few stops. Above is the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. An absolutely amazing quarry contianing animals from the plesteocene (15,000-1.5 million years ago). Above is a confluence of mammoth skulls, ivory, and post-cranial bones. The preparator from CIP, Dr. Seitz, used to work at this site. It was discovered while a businessman was breaking ground for an apartment building. He realized the scientific importance of the site and a non-profit was formed to excavate and run the site.
Here is one of the pages from my diary entry at the site. I chose to draw the massive skull of "Winnie" the second largest skull found at the site alongside a confluence of other bones and ivory. Winnie, and nearly all of the mammoths at the site, are Columbian Mammoths, the largest of the mammoths. Only a few woolies have been found in the quarry.
The Carter County Museum in Montana boasts several exceptional specimens including this trike skull (top) and the worlds most complete duckbill dinosaur (bottom). A local cattle rancher found this on their land and legendary Montana scientist Marshall Lambert excavated it with the help of high school students. Another pit stop en route to our dig site.
The Carter County Museum's Wyrex, closely related to the T-rex. This thing is so big it barely fits inside the museum.
Selected excerpts from Emily Verbeten's (MIAD) field journal. This journal is a major assignment for the course. The students, volunteers, and faculty on the dig were required to produce two of these. One of them remains the property of the student and the other is deposited in the DDM and becomes property of the US government for scientific use.
A photo of the badlands on our BLM. This is the Hell Creek Formation, the last stand of the dinosaurs. It's hard to express just how vast this area of North America is. If you look closely there are two students hiking in the lower right hand side of the above picture, they are a white and red speck in the small chasm. The area has been completely untouched by the modern world and has no internet or phone service. The effect on the mind and body are profound, life affirming. Every time you find a fossil you are the first entity to interact with that animal in more than 66 million years.
Collin Sutton (MIAD) contemplating the void. You can see an example of snake guards, the long plastic, metal, and fabric rings strapped around Collin's lower legs. Rattlesnakes almost never strike above the height of the human knee. So wearing these guards prevents rattlesnake bites while wandering the brush of the badlands.
Three years ago our expedition adopted the use of these three side by sides. This cuts down on hiking long distances and makes transporting fossils and equipment a lot easier. They're also really fun to drive.
The vast majority of the fossils we collect, by volume, are from microvertibrate sites. These areas of weathered out exposure fill with thousands of fossils moved by rainwater. Above are gar scales, these jewel like bits were once the skin of prehistoric fish.
These don't need an introduction - two T-rex teeth! These examples are in the DDM and we located two of our own during our season. Collin Sutton (MIAD) found one his second day of prospecting and I found the other on my last day, an awesome way to end the trip. Also found a bunch of trike teeth.
This is my diary entry for my T-rex find. The tooth is the bottom set of drawings in orthographic view of every angle of the tooth. It's nearly 4 cm long! the top drawing is a caudal (tail) vertebra and the middle on is a small but significant mammal denary (jaw). The black box on the left is covering the GPS coordinates of the find's location - it's illegal to reveal this on the internet for security reasons (poaching).
Gordon Russell (MIAD) shows his first major find of the season, an adult triceratops vertebra. This is "surface collect" which means you don't need to dig it up, it's a fossil just sitting on the surface of the ground. The detail picture shows the long indentation along the bottom of the vertebra where this animal's spinal cord once rested. Its easy to tell bones from rocks by looking for the ossified surface of the bones: the tiny holes you can see on the lower left side of the fossil in the bottom pic.
Emily Verbeten (MIAD) located this large turtle shell and excavated it along with two other MIAD students. The detail picture shows the quality of this find. Usually we're finding turtles in many tiny pieces (like a Byzantine mosaic) but this one is complete and in beautiful condition, a museum quality specimen. The goo you see on the shell is vainac, a glue used in the field to get pieces of fossils to adhere to one another to prepare them for transport in plaster. The shell will be cleaned and put together in the laboratories in Kenosha by Dr. Seitz.
Beautifully preserved trike finger/foot digit bone found by Claire O'Malley (MIAD).
Excerpts from Sheyla Hernandez's (MIAD) field journal. Geological Context is a diagram of the geologic strata of Montana and South Dakota. Croc and Gar Site shows standout finds from a microvertibrate site. The Find documents Sheyla's especially rare find of a mammal dentary (jaw). Mammal jaws from Hell Creek are the fossilized remains of animals that lived alongside the dinosaurs before the extinction event. The ones who survived populated Earth with all the mammals alive today, including humans. Sheyla's find is going to be published in the next edition of CIP's field guide.
The biggest project of the season was this quarry containing an adult trike. CIP had removed sub-cranial bones at this site two years ago and this season we made an attempt to find the skull. What you're looking at is a hole about 12 feet deep dug out of the side of a mountain. This took two weeks and students and staff removed five tons of rock, clay, and sand. This is brutal work all with picks and shovels, we're not allowed to use mechanized equipment. The bottom of the hole exposed in the picture is the bonebed where Dr. Carr believed the skull must be located. The students are on the periphery of the bonebed gently working their way inward looking for the skull. This is sensitive work as fossils are very fragile. The first piece of skull was located by Claire O'Malley (MIAD) after three hours of looking, an email a few days after our return confirmed that the brain case and horns were in the quarry, solidifying the most substantial vicotory of the expedition.
Dr. Carr carefully inspects a bone inside the quarry. Once we unearth them we cover them in tin foil so they are easy to see and avoid.
Here is my field diagram of the excavation of the trike quarry (it's name is McAlhany after the professor who discovered it with Dr. Carr). We took the mountain down in 20 minute shifts. While one group worked the other sat beneath a tarp and drank water. This went on for about four or five hours a day for the two week period. Again, the black box is covering the GPS coordinates of the site.
This trike quarry has produced a lot of amber. I saw more this year than ever before. Above is a piece I pulled out in 2016 showing the blood red color of the Hell Creek amber.
Typical scene at the end of each day - everyone around the kitchen table inspecting our finds, sharing, drawing, and journaling.
Number one expedition puppy Reno! This dog greeted our crew with remarkable enthusiasm every time we returned from the field. We also had a friendly horse. We slept in the little house in the background while others camped around the lawn.
Thank you's and aknowledgements
Big thanks to all of the students who made this my best season yet on Hell Creek. Thanks to John Caruso for being the absolute best person to get lampooned in the desert with. To CIP and Dr. Carr and Dr. Seitz for their exceptional leadership and indispensable intellect. Thanks to Jenny Krantz for her instermental role in organizing study abroad and mentoring me through this process. To my parents Les and Kathy whom without I would be nothing in this world. And of course, my partner Jami.