Just What the Doctor Ordered: Two Medicine delivers high biodiversity in a low profile region

Brad Brown began working at the Burpee Museum shortly after graduating from Northern Illinois University in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Geology. He has assisted with multiple Burpee field seasons in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana including the excavation of Homer, Burpee’s “teenaged” Triceratops.

In Montana’s eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains stand ancient weathered hills above gently rolling plains. Within these hills numerous fossils await their discovery by some intrepid, wide-brim hat wearing paleontologist. Animals preserved in the mud that entombed them around 75 million years ago had no way of knowing the significance a band of bipedal, relatively hairless mammals would find in them. This location, a section of the Two Medicine Formation, has been a hotspot of diverse fossil discoveries for over 30 years despite its sleepy surroundings.

Morning view from my tent. The teepee was used by friends passing through for a night or anyone whose tent was damaged by the occasionally raucous wind.

Morning view from my tent. The teepee was used by friends passing through for a night or anyone whose tent was damaged by the occasionally raucous wind.

The Two Medicine Formation became a consistent site of paleontological study beginning in the late 1970s when the first known North American dinosaur egg fossils were reported. Montana paleontologist, Jack Horner, with collaborator, Bob Makela, and a group of Princeton students prospected the Two Medicine, and their years of work identified more than mere egg fragments. They found numerous egg nests, some containing embryos. Laid by the hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) Maiasaura, the Montana nesting sites have provided much insight into dinosaur anatomy, ontogeny (changes through maturation), and parenting behavior. The Maiasaura bone bed can be traced across numerous hill exposures including Camp Makela where the crew spends their evenings dining and refining their research. Horner and his students have estimated that over 10,000 Maiasaura skeletons were deposited at the location (though many have long eroded away) leading them to believe that the animals died during a catastrophic flooding event.

Another Two Medicine fossil site of interest, dubbed Egg Mountain, has provided a unique window into the deep past. Named for the original attractant to the site, Egg Mountain has produced many fossils of eggshell from dinosaurs, birds, and crocodiles. Dr. David Varricchio of Montana State University has been working at Egg Mountain for the past five summers and has unearthed an assortment of small Late Cretaceous creatures, some of which are thought to correlate with the site’s eggshell. Dinosaurs present at the site include a possible burrowing animal called Orodromeus, as well as the bird-like theropod, Troodon. Teeth of hadrosaurs and the theropods Saurornitholestes and Daspletosaurus have also been found. Non dinosaurians from lizards to mammals, both placental (such as rabbits, mice, etc) and non-placental (marsupials, monotremes, and an extinct group, multituberculates) have been some of the most complete specimens from the site. Trace fossils are also prevalent at Egg Mountain. Backfilled insect burrows and pupa chambers as well as pupa cases still showing silk weave patterns are among the most abundant signs of prehistoric life, representing numerous beetle and wasp species. Such fossils provide important details about the paleoenvironment and are an interesting topic of research for ichnologist and author, Dr. Tony Martin, of Emory University.

Egg Mountain is a somewhat atypical fossil locale because it represents a terrestrial setting as opposed to the more watery fluvial and lacustrine settings which tend to provide reliable opportunities for sediment accumulation, therefore, fossilization. The site is currently believed to preserve a natural levee along the bank of an ancient river. The prevailing sediment would have been mud and soil which, over great swaths of time, hardened into a gray mudstone with blocky carbonate nodules. Carbonate rock can indicate to a geologist that the area was perhaps a shallow marine environment, but this is no marine limestone. The micrite found at Egg Mountain is derived from carbonate rock which eroded from a marine Paleozoic deposit to the west that was uplifted during the early rise of the Rocky Mountains. Rivers carried the carbonate in solution, flooded periodically, and the carbonate material percolated into the Cretaceous soil. During dry seasons, water in the soil evaporated leaving behind nodules of solid carbonate.

Originally so many bones of Orodromeus juveniles and adults were found at the site that it was thought to be an Orodromeus nesting site. The identification of embryos as Orodromeus seemed to confirm that, however, after more Troodon specimens were found and studied Dr. Varricchio realized that the embryos were originally misidentified and are actually Troodon. It is believed that Orodromeus remains may represent prey items of brooding Troodon parents. Dr. Varricchio’s team has uncovered a significant clutch of two dozen elongate ovoid eggs within a bowl shaped trace of a nest constructed by and fitting the body size of Troodon which is on display at Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT. The eggshell of Troodon is very smooth and closely resembles the texture of bird eggs. A bumpier type of dinosaur eggshell is thought to represent a dromaeosaur (the group including Velociraptor), though no skeletal material associated with a clutch of bumpy eggs has yet been found. Pieces of crocodile teeth and egg shell are found at the site, but again, no associated skeletons or nests have surfaced. A handful of very complete mammal and lizard specimens have been collected from Egg Mountain and continue to draw interest from experts and collaborators such as Dr. Gregory Wilson of the University of Washington. The Two Medicine Formation is possibly the host locale of the best preserved Late Cretaceous mammals in North America.

As a prospective graduate student hoping to study paleontology, I contacted Dr. Varricchio about his research at Montana State University. After keeping in touch over the winter months we met in person this past March at Burpee Museum’s annual PaleoFest event. We talked about field work, as many paleo folk start getting antsy in spring, and Dave invited me to volunteer with his crew. I was only able to stay for one week, but that was enough to get an idea of how the site operates and what should be expected of it.

Orodromeus femur in micrite. Working the micrite requires breaking large rocks into small rocks, so bones are often split among a slab and counter slab.

Orodromeus femur in micrite. Working the micrite requires breaking large rocks into small rocks, so bones are often split among a slab and counter slab.

Egg Mountain is a rather flat rectangular site atop a hill, setup in such a way to simplify mapping. The crew is spread across a grid and works their section down from the surface until they reach an established lower horizon. The mudstone requires occasional jack hammering so that the crew can work through the rubble with brushes and awls keeping their eyes sharply tuned to spot very small bone and egg fragments. In the afternoon of my first day at Egg Mountain I ‘worked the line’ until I found something that did not look quite like mudstone. Being new to the operation, I asked, “Dave, do my eyes deceive me? Is this bone?” Indeed, it was part of a tibia to an Orodromeus. Further excavation uncovered a femur, a vertebra, a possible fibula. Then, in carbonate micrite, there was another femur, more vertebrae, and a few toe bones. On my last day I circled around to the original material found in mudstone and ran into yet another femur along with a radius and an ulna. Three total femora were present indicating that there were two animals! Normally, the site’s student and volunteer workers hunch over scads of crumbly mudstone for 3-5 weeks finding mostly trace fossils, isolated bones, and eggshell fragments barely visible to the naked eye, mere stains on the rock compared with the large Maiasaura bones that lay just a mile away. Over the course of the week I realized that I was not having the typical Egg Mountain experience. To find multiple dinosaur bones every day for a week was a rare treat that I will not soon forget!

Dave maps the orientation of Orodromeus bones. The bucket in front of him contains the day’s finds wrapped in paper towel and aluminum foil. In the foreground volunteer, Ulf Schyldt, of Stockholm, Sweden sweeps his section clean of rubble while seeking tiny ancient treasures.

Dave maps the orientation of Orodromeus bones. The bucket in front of him contains the day’s finds wrapped in paper towel and aluminum foil. In the foreground volunteer, Ulf Schyldt, of Stockholm, Sweden sweeps his section clean of rubble while seeking tiny ancient treasures.

Science is a beautiful and humbling cohesion of the observations, experiences, and testable ideas that humanity has encountered and manipulated over many centuries. I owe much of my experience in the scientific world to Burpee Museum’s long running expedition program. I had never found a dinosaur bone until I went to Montana with a class run by Highland Community College professor, Steve Simpson, in collaboration with Burpee. I found myself returning to spend as many summer breaks as I could in the Hell Creek Formation of the eastern Montana badlands. I was privileged to find myself in Montana the summer that Homer was discovered. The following year I was one of many intrigued individuals who helped uncover the expansive juvenile Triceratops bone bed where Homer and two of his compatriots were laid down. After years of guided experience with Scott Williams and Burpee staff, I am glad to have taken my lessons learned and applied them to a new dig site. Working with diverse groups of people and seeing fossils unseen for ages provides new perspectives and has helped me continue to build upon each experience, finding that science is not just a subject of study or an accumulation of facts and numbers, but a way of life that is shared worldwide.

Stay tuned to No Stone Unturned for more news and stories inspired by the Burpee Museum of Natural History.

For more information about Tony Martin’s research and why insect fossils provide a better understanding of dinosaurs, follow his blog Life Traces of the Georgia Coast and pick up his book Dinosaurs Without Bones, in stores now!

IDNR Schoolyard Habitat Grant Results

Students in Burpee Museum's Home School Science Class plant flowers along the museum's back terrace.

Students in Burpee Museum’s Home School Science Class plant flowers along the museum’s back terrace.

Earlier this spring Burpee Museum was selected as a recipient of an Illinois Department of Natural Resources Schoolyard Habitat Grant. This grant allowed Burpee Museum to plant native plants along the Riverfront Terrace. These plants will provide additional resources for native animals that inhabit the area, they will also attract native and migratory insects like monarch butterflies and honey bees.

Burpee Museum’s Home School Students and the New England Banner 4-H club volunteered their time to help plant the new native gardens along the terrace. The next time you visit the museum, make sure to take a moment to visit the Riverview Terrace and admire their work!

2014 Dino Shindig!

2014 Shindig

The second annual Dino Shindig is fast approaching! The Dino Shindig is hosted by the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, Montana midway through the paleontological field season. Burpee Museum was proud to be a part of the inaugural Shindig weekend and is honored to be part of it once again this year! Last year’s Shindig hosted Dr. Jack Horner (Museum of the Rockies), Dr. Thomas Carr (Carthage College), Dr. Mark Goodwin (University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology), Dr. Tyler Lyson (Smithsonian Museum of Natural Hstory), Dr. Joseph Peterson (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater), Dr. Thomas Holtz (University of Maryland) and Burpee Museum’s very own Scott Williams.

2013 Dino Shindig Speakers with host, Nathan Carroll, Carter County Museum Curator

2013 Dino Shindig Speakers with host, Nathan Carroll, Carter County Museum Curator

This year’s Dino Shindig will take place over the weekend of July 26 & 27, 2014. If you happen to be in Southeast Montana (or are planning to travel to that area) the Shindig is a wonderful, family friendly event that draws world-class speakers to the museum (see below for a list of speakers) to educate the public about the amazing paleontological resources and discoveries in the area.  Talks will be on Saturday July 26, and a dinosaur expedition (limited spaces available) will take place on Sunday July 27. The Shindig webpage has additional information about pricing and registration, and you can stay up to date about the Shindig on Carter County Museum’s Facebook page. If you’re able, we hope you’ll head to the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka to check out the Dino Shinding, its bound to be a great time!

2014 Speakers

 

The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

The 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is coming in just a few weeks. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. As we approach this sombre milestone, it is important to take time to remember other species that have gone extinct in that time frame,  consider those that are in danger of becoming extinct in the near future, and reflect on our impact on the Earth then and now. Each of these topics will be visited in their own posts over the next two months.

Burpee Museum of Natural History’s mission is to inspire all people to engage in a lifetime of discovery and learning about the natural world, through preservation and interpretation. An increasingly important facet of learning, preserving and interpreting is helping people understand conservation efforts and how humans impact the ecosystems that they inhabit. Much like with black bears, cougars, and grey wolves returning to the region; understanding how an ecosystem operates and what conservation means are important parts of understanding legal measures, news articles, and conservation policies.

Although it is too late to save our native Passenger Pigeon population, they do have an important lessons to teach us about human impact and responsibility. We hope you’ll join us in remembering the Passenger Pigeon and learning from its extinction. Burpee Museum will be hosting Joel Greenberg, author of “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction” on September 9th for a Mahlburg Scholars lecture about the extinction of Passenger Pigeons. Burpee Museum is also partnering with Project Passenger Pigeon to host an exhibit about Passenger Pigeons at the museum that will feature the museum’s own Passenger Pigeon specimens.

Guest Blog: Josh Malone

Josh Malone is a recent graduate of Augustana College, where he earned a B.A. in Theatre as well as minors in Geology and Art. Burpee Museum has been fortunate to have Josh participate in its expedition programs since 2007.  Josh has also volunteered with the museum during PaleoFest and many other events over the past seven years. This was Josh’s first visit to the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry in Hanksville, Utah.

There really is nothing like it. Sitting in the dry dust, staring back at something that hasn’t seen the light of day in over 147 million years. It is something that few people get to experience in their life time. Fortunately for me the Burpee Museum provided me with an opportunity to have that kind experience, multiple times.

Finding out about Burpee Museum in ’05 was literally one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. I was a teenager in love with dinosaurs. I had been in love with dinosaurs since I was two years old and saw Jurassic Park when it was in theatres. These giant beasts fascinated me and I was only two years away from starting high school and six years away from college. I knew… or thought I knew for sure what I wanted to do. Then storms in Jane. My uncle and aunt in Rockford told me about Jane and would send me newspaper clippings of this amazing find. I had to see her for myself and when I finally did, like most others, I was in awe of her. But it wasn’t just Jane I was fascinated with. Where had the Burpee Museum of Natural History been all my life? This small museum with this amazing natural history collection ranging from the Carboniferous to modern-day biology. It had everything. And there, sitting disguised as a simple flyer at the front desk was a key to a big part of my future. A flyer that was promoting the museum’s summer expedition to Montana’s Hell Creek formation, where they had found Jane. I knew, there and then, that I would be going on one of Burpee’s expeditions.

Over the next year I worked for various farmers around my hometown of Kempton, IL so that I could save up enough money to go on this trip and in 2007 I went on my first dig with the Burpee in Montana. It was an experience I will never forget. Not only did I find some amazing things and work with an awesome team (shout out to Jim Holstein, and Erin Fitzgerald, Joanne, and my cousin Mark) I got to work with Dr. Thomas Carr and got to meet Dr. Jack Horner. It was a dream come true. I was told that I had an experience that even many vets weren’t lucky enough to have.

For the next few years I came out to the Hell Creek with Burpee on the odd numbered years (so ’07, ’09, ’11, and ’13.) Each time offered a different experience- all of them good. Even those gusty cold winds in early August while the sun hides behind the clouds and you stand atop a high ridge. I cherish those days because it is all experience gained. An important thing to note, that I feel a lot of people don’t realize, is that field work isn’t always easy and nice. The weather can suck a lot of the time and you can go days without finding anything. Then there is Scott with his blowhorn at 7 am. There are bad times. But I loved those moments because it just added to the well roundedness of the experience that the Burpee offers. Those experiences also humble you and make you realize just how much these professionals go through every season, all season.

But with the bad there has also been so much good. Over the past several years I have made so many connections, and worked with so many amazing and influential people. Honestly, when I was eight years old watching Walking With Dinosaurs I would have never imagined that I would someday be laying next to Thomas Holtz or Jim Kirkland with my face in the sand looking for dinosaurs. Yet here I am, having those exact experiences. I would randomly look over and have to suppress the urge to have a mini freakout moment. I needed to remain professional… but you know what? I can have my moment now. THIS IS AWESOME. I’ve worked with Holtz, Kirkland, Carr, Goodwin, and so many others! I’ve interviewed them all at PaleoFest or at other conferences I’ve gone to with the Burpee. I’ve sat next to giants in the paleo-community and had conversations, found bones, and yes- even thrown back a beer or two with them. The Burpee offers that opportunity.

One of the things I wanted… no, needed to do, before I graduated was come out to the Hanksville-Burpee site in Utah. Mainly because of my wishfullness to uncover a stegosaur. But also so that I will have had that “other” experience with the Burpee before my adult life starts after college. The opportunity arose for me to go to Utah the week after graduation, which in my book still counts because I don’t have a job yet and I haven’t moved far away. So, I latched on to the opportunity to essentially intern under Scott and Katie for the Burpee at the Utah site. And it has been every bit the experience I hoped it would be. No… I didn’t find my stegosaur. But we have several sauropods, some Allosaurus and Ceratosaur material, and an ankylosaur!? I mean, honestly we have some of the best stuff ever here at this site, and I can officially say “Hey, I have been there. I was a part of that team!”

Recent Augustana graduate, Josh Malone, joined the Burpee Field Crew in Hanksville, Utah.

Recent Augustana graduate, Josh Malone, joined the Burpee Field Crew in Hanksville, Utah.

It has all been very humbling. The past several years my relationship with the Burpee has helped me grow as a student an as a person. No matter my interest or area of study the Burpee with their different types of programming was always there to support and help me in any way they could. Scott, Katie, Josh, Hillary, Maureen, and so many others at the museum who encouraged and facilitated my growth as an individual. I would not be the person I am today without the experiences the Burpee has offered.

There are times in your life… well, in my life at least, where everything seems perfect. Like where I am at is where I am supposed to be at that moment, and that I am on that right path. Trust me when I say that this past year has been missing a lot of those moments. As a senior at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL this past year I have never felt more unsure of myself and where my future is going to take me. I have my BA in Theatre and ADs in Geology and Art. I have no clue where I will be a few weeks from now to be honest, let alone next year. But coming out to the Hanksville-Burpee site in Utah this summer, on my fifth expedition with the Burpee crew, has given me that feeling I’m supposed to be here, at this moment. It’s a blessing.

Mountain Lions, Bobcats, Black Bears and Wolves … Oh My?

Many of us are familiar with the phrase “Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!,” immortalized by the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, but many Stateline residents may have been using a slightly different phrase to understand the seemingly abrupt return of some apex predators to the state.

Black Bears may become a more common feature in the flora and fauna of Illinois.

Black Bears may become a more common feature in the flora and fauna of Illinois.

Recently, an American Black Bear was spotted in Winnebago and Dekalb Counties in Illinois, and a Mountain Lion was spotted in Rock County in Wisconsin.

Mountain Lions, along with Black Bears and Grey Wolves are now protected under the Illinois Wildlife Code.

Mountain Lions, along with Black Bears and Grey Wolves may now be protected under the Illinois Wildlife Code.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s many apex predators, like Mountain Lions, Bobcats, American Black Bears, and Grey Wolves, were extirpated from Illinois and Wisconsin because they posed a threat to farm animals and families as farm towns spread and the population grew. Now these animals have regained an ecological foothold in many neighboring states (including Wisconsin) and are starting to return to Illinois in the search for territories and resources. Since 2000 at least seven Grey Wolves, three Mountain Lions, and three Black Bears have had confirmed sightings in Illinois.

This return is exciting to some, and scary to others but it is not unanticipated. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has been conducting research and planning for the return or reintroduction of apex predators since the early 2000’s. A bill adding Grey Wolves, American Black Bears, and Mountain Lions to the Illinois Wildlife Code was passed by the Illinois House and Senate as of May 30, 2014. Their addition will provide them basic protections in Illinois which will allow these species the opportunity to re-establish viable populations in the state. One of the primary points of protection that the Illinois Wildlife Code provides is that these animals cannot be shot on sight unless a person (or their property) is in immediate, imminent danger. It also requires nuisance permits to be obtained from the state before an animal that is not creating an imminent danger to be taken.

So, why is this important? The protections provided represent a fundamental change in the way humans view these animals. They were initially viewed as nuisances to human expansion and livelihood; now we better understand their role in the ecology of our environment and we are willing to manage our impact so that they can return to at least portions their historical ranges. This will likely cause increased sightings, and possibly interactions, with these animals however, the University of Illinois has developed an extensive site titled “Living with Wildlife in Illinois” if you are interested in learning more about the animals we share our state with and how to live with them. As it was stated so well by Bob Bluett, IDNR Wildlife Biologist, in his 2012 interview by the Chicago Tribune “Some of those species are quite common in other parts of the U.S., people seem to get along just fine.”

 

Senate Bill 3049

Chicago Tribune

 

Guest Blog: Dr. Mike D’Emic

Today’s post is by Dr. Mike D’Emic. He is an adjunct curator at Burpee Museum and is the Principal Investigator at the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry in Hanksville, Utah. To learn more about Dr. D’Emic and his research, visit his website.

“This is going to take decades.” That was the thought that went through my mind after a week spent digging up dinosaurs at the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry. Dinosaur bone is so abundant here that the area holds the potential to be one of the largest dinosaur quarries in the country, if not the world. Last year I visited the quarry for just two days – not enough time for much more than a tour facilitated by the Bureau of Land Management as I took over the role of primary investigator for the quarry. Learning that I would be able to direct research at an impressively large quarry full of similarly impressive dinosaurs was pretty exciting for me, but previous fieldwork committments last year meant that I could only make a brief stay. This year gave me a little more time to plan, and I made it out for an entire week (again cut too short by other fieldwork, as I type this en route to another dig, this one in Wyoming). Working at the quarry fits perfectly with my research interests – the focus of my PhD was on the evolution of a group of dinosaurs called sauropods – the long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs most familiar to the public in general as the “Brontosaurus” kind, and to my generation in particular as the “Littlefoot” kind. The Hanksville-Burpee Quarry contains no fewer than 14 juvenile sauropods, so the chance to do research on this material has been a priceless opportunity.

Volunteer Joe Mongan works on excavation of a sauropod pelvis from "Limb Bone Ridge".

Volunteer Joe Mongan works on excavation of a sauropod pelvis from “Limb Bone Ridge”.

The discoveries at the quarry this past week have continued to impress me, and I’m already looking forward to next year. So far we’ve found bones from larger sauropod individuals than had been found before at the quarry, our first sauropod pelvis, some rare theropod (meat-eater) material, and the rarest find of all – an armored dinosaur that would have been a precursor to the famous tank-like, club-tailed Ankylosaurus. By the end of the season, nearly 400 plaster jackets will have been removed over the past seven years of work at the quarry, with each jacket holding one or more bones. All of this feels more impressive in light of the fact that less than 1% of the immediate area that seems to bear fossils here has been excavated!

Volunteers excavate "Middle Quarry", a mixture of juvenile sauropod (long-necked), theropod (meat-eating), and ankylosaur (club-tailed) dinosaurs, keeping an eye on a storm in the distance.

Volunteers excavate “Middle Quarry”, a mixture of juvenile sauropod (long-necked), theropod (meat-eating), and ankylosaur (club-tailed) dinosaurs.

The Hanksville-Burpee Quarry has attracted visitors and researchers from all over the world – just this week we had visitors from Poland, India, Bangladesh, and Egypt, among others. The accessibility of the quarry means that researchers can come and visit for just a few days – we also hosted graduate students and professors from several US colleges, including Dr. Allison Beck from Blackhawk Community College, who was part of several important dinosaur digs in Africa in the late 1990s-early 2000s. We were also paid a visit from science writer Brian Switek, who was excited to find the the small patch of bone he discovered last year has since been uncovered to reveal the nearly complete sauropod pelvis mentioned above. (Check out Brian’s blog about his visit to HBDQ!)

Work at the quarry was a mix of frenetic and zen – sometimes it seems like there are a few dozen things on the “immediate” to do list, while other times you can sit for hours chipping away at the same patch of rock, trying to free a particular bone. All that chipping gave me time to think, and I mostly thought about time. The special perspective that geology gives us is that of time: “deep time,” as we call it in the lingo of the field. Geologists and paleontologists not only have to think about the dimensions in space that connect patterns and processes, but also appropriate dimensions in time. I spent a lot of time thinking about how old these dinosaurs were when they died, about how long they sat on the plains adjacent to the river before some large storm or flood washed them into the channel, about how far they tumbled and bashed each other traveling down that channel, and how long they’ve sat in the rock until we came along with our tools to unearth them. And of course, I thought about the daunting amount of time it will take to uncover and study all of these bones, in what is shaping up to someday be one of the largest dinosaur graveyards in the world. It all amounts to a great puzzle that will no doubt inspire questions for years to come, and I’m already looking forward to getting back to Hanksville for next year’s dig.