Friday, October 2, 2009

North Dakota Dinosaur Dig: Part 1

Posted by Kirk
Over the next four days I'll be recounting the dinosaur dig I went on in the summer of 2007 with the Marmarth Research Foundation. Here's Part One.

In the summer of 2006, I taught my regular Fossils to Feathers summer camp where we dig up local fossils from the Ordovician and then talk about birds and how birds are related to life that existed earlier. It is basically a class about evolution. Fellow Warner naturalist Bekah Dalen brought in some fossils to show me over the summer. She said she got them on a dinosaur dig while working at the Children's Museum. Hmm, we thought, why don't we lead a dinosaur dig though work?

Here were the two selling points.

1. Digging up dinosaurs
2. Getting paid to do it

Need I say more?

We offered the summer camp in the summer of 2007 and we took seven 6-8th grade kids on a 10 hour van ride to the far nether regions of North Dakota to root around in the famous Hell Creek Formation. (Okay, famous to other geeks, geologists and paleo-types.)

We worked with Marmarth Research Foundation and the week was tons of fun. Fossil wise we found many pieces of trionychid turtles and parts of other species of turtles. We found champsosaur bones, a hadrosaur femur, a triceratops femur, a triceratops tooth, dromeosaur teeth, fossil trees, crocodile teeth, freshwater ray teeth, triceratops frill and more. The pictures tell a good story so let's start there.

We set out on Sunday for the 10 hour ride to Marmarth, ND. The highlight of the trip was of course stopping to gawk at Salem Sue the world's largest holstein cow statue in New Salem, ND. That's six tons of reinforced fiberglass in the shape of a cow up there on that butte. She's actually the world's largest fiberglass animal. Okay so the picture is awful. Follow the link for up close giant cow bliss. This is largest cow I've ever seen. It is much larger than Chatty Belle.

We arrived in Marmarth just in time for dinner. The kids were interested in what the food would be so we joked with them that it would be Tater Tot hotdish. We fell out of the van and into the cafe only to discover that dinner that night was indeed tater tot hotdish. That night we got our room assignments in the Marmarth Bunkhouse. The bunkhouse was built for railway workers back in the old days. As far accommodations for a dinosaur dig this was posh. Most digs involve sleeping in tents so this was nice. There was a phone, showers, private rooms and satellite TV. Weirdly, the kids all wanted to watch shows about serial killers while I preferred spongebob. Go figure.

Monday morning we headed out to a site where kids a few years ago uncovered a hadrosaur femur. There is still probably more of the dino inside the hillside but a LOT of rock would have to be removed to get at it. Maybe someday, but for now there are easier quarry. I found one of my first cool things here. It was a little piece of a trionychid turtle shell. It was thrilling but little did I know I would be seeing thousands of such parts in the next few days. This site was also home to many many modern rodent bones as a large owl roosted in the area and the ground was littered with bones and owl pellets. Our leader, Doug Hanks, showed us a profile of the rock in the area and taught us how to read the record of what had happened there. Here he is explaining the term orogeny to the kids, as in the Rocky Mountain Orogeny. A couple of days later he asked the kids, "And what do we call that event that was happening to the west at this time?" To which one of the kids replied, "Oh! The Rocky Mountain Orgy!" He realized what he said as soon as it came out, he turned bright red and we all had a good laugh.

Monday afternoon we headed out to another area to work on a site rich in turtles. It is apparently one of the richest turtle sites in the world. We didn't see any. Such is this line of work. I used an exacto knife to slowly carve out a one foot square area. In an hour our so I went down about four inches. This is the very unglamourous part of field work i.e. carefully looking for nothing. The area I worked in was where they had just removed six complete turtles so it was important to keep searching. It was too bad we didn't uncover anything but that's part of the job too.

Dinner Monday was meatloaf hotdish. We ate LOTS of hotdish (that would be casserole to you non-midwesterners) When I say meatloaf I mean many many pounds of ground beef tossed into a pan, covered in ketchup and baked. I think there may have been a can of "cream of something" soup mixed in. Welcome to flavor country. Why didn't I take any pictures of the food?

That's it for the first installment. Return tomorrow for Part 2.