Big Things Have Small Beginnings

I thought I would steal the title of this blog from the upcoming Prometheus movie…which hopefully will make the sci-fi geeks happy.  In my last blog, I touched upon the very first, exploratory trip Burpee took to “investigate” whether the museum could create and sustain a paleontological field program.  It was a real adventure and we came away determined to get a BLM Permit and make our dreams a reality. 

When summer 2001 rolled around, I was still a Deputy Sheriff and volunteered (when I could) in the new prep lab.  Around this time I met a young man named Joseph Peterson who was also volunteering with exhibits and in the lab.  Joe had a strong interest in paleontology and was planning on attending SIU (Southern Illinois University) to get a geology degree (most recently Joe got his Ph.D. in Geology from NIU and now teaches at UW Oshkosh), but I digress.  In any case, we applied for our BLM permit for several sections in southeastern Montana where the Hell Creek was exposed.  We received our permit to do “limited survey” and made plans to take a crew into the “wilds”.  At the end of May, 2001 we packed up and headed to Montana with a field crew consisting of fourteen staff, volunteers, friends and family. 

Unlike, our 2000 trip, we chose to stay at Camp Needmore just outside of Ekalaka. Nestled within Custer National Forest, Camp Needmore is an old CCC camp built in the 1930s during FDRs forestry program.  It has barrack style cabins, showers, and a big rec hall complete with a full kitchen.  So for those of us who have spent time in tents, this is fairly lavish, although it can be hard to convince the “newbs” that Camp Needmore is a godsend.  In addition to a comfortable and beautiful setting, Camp Needmore promotes a communal setting and an opportunity for some fossil preparation.

We spent almost two weeks prospecting the Hell Creek exposures west of Ekalaka.  For our first excursion, I felt we were doing pretty well.  Within a short time we had collected a few isolated Triceratops limb elements, a variety of microvertebrate fossils (turtle shell, crocodile teeth, fish vertebra and a few mammal jaws) and a nice Pachycephalosaurus “dome”.  “Pachys” are one of the rarer dinosaurs in the Hell Creek and easily recognizable as the “bone-headed” dinosaur of the latest Cretaceous.  As cool as these finds were, nothing that was a “newsmaker”. 

Our big find would occur on our second to last day….but at the time we had no idea it would be our “big find”.  I remember the day well, it was now early June and the temperatures were finally going up.  This particular day it was about 95 degrees and not much for a breeze.  We were prospecting an area approximately three miles north of the  nearest road.  There was good exposure there.  Right off the bat, Richard and Jill Hertzing (former Burpee Educator) found a nice juvenile Triceratops horn core.   Another group found a couple nice micro-sites.  Of course, everyone had spread out through this valley and was calling out every new find, which meant I was running all over the place to help ID things.  Toward the end of the day I was called on the radio.  Apparently two of the volunteers (Dr. William Harrison, NIU Languages Professor and Carol Tuck a Rockford Accountant) had found something exposed at the bottom of an exposure.  I was pretty tired from traversing the valley so my response was a little less than enthusiastic…in fact I think it was “Yeah yeah….I’ll get there when I get there”.  Then I trudged my way over there. 

The trip was worth it.  Upon arriving, I saw what the excitement was about.  At the base of the exposure was a phalange (toe bone) and what looked like some other foot bones (metatarsals).  They appeared in good condition and what was more interested was that they were hollow!  Based on the morphology, size and hollow nature, it was easy to tell these foot bones belonged to a theropod (meat eating) dinosaur, but what kind?  Further examination indicated there might be more of this specimen there, within the same layer just a few feet away what appeared to be a hip bone was just getting exposed.   We felt pretty confident that this specimen may be fairly complete.  One problem was clearly evident…..there was about 12 feet of overburden to contend with and we were out of time and needed a proper excavation permit.  . 

There was also the question of what kind of dinosaur was there.  Clearly a theropod, but it wasn’t very big.  The toe bone was less than 20 cm in length.  We initially thought it might be a large Struthiomimus (ostrich mimic dinosaur). The problem with field IDs is that they change many times and are often only confirmed based on completeness, condition of the material and proper preparation.  

We were all very excited and reluctant to leave, but i was clear that we would need to plan for 2002.  So we left Montana behind, returned to Burpee and began making more plans for the next field season.  Of course, those few foot bones would lead us to a “HUGE” little find.  But again..that’s for the next blog!

Initial 2001 discovery of theropod phalange and metatarsal

 

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