Remember the phrase, “It takes a village”? Well, in the case of the excavation of a fairly complete dinosaur, it may not take a village, but it’s going to require lots of dedicated people to get the specimen out safely. Excavating “Jane”, our juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, was no different.
On the heels of our successful 2001 foray into the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana, plans were set in motion for 2002. Chief among these was to obtain an excavation permit from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) for one site in particular. On the second to last field day in 2001, some interesting bones were discovered at the base of an exposure. They were toe and foot bones and clearly belonged to a theropod dinosaur, possibly a large Struthiomimus. Theropods are far less common than the large herbivorous dinosaurs of the latest Cretaceous, like the horned Triceratops or the “duck-billed” Edmontosaurus. Complete “Struthio” specimens are even rarer, so we were pretty excited to get back there. One fairly large obstacle to this was about 12 feet of overburden (rock above the bone layer), and that an additional permit was needed.
After sending in the proper reports for 2001 and paperwork for 2002, we received our excavation permits from the BLM. Logistics were planned and a Burpee team went out to begin the thankless task of removing over 5000 cubic feet of rock. Sadly, I wasn’t able to come out directly as I was still doing my “cop job” and vacation time was hard to take. The initial team was a diverse group led by Mike Henderson and included a couple of geology students (Joe Peterson, who I mentioned in an earlier blog, and Chris Garnhart), Carol Tuck and Bill Harrison (co-discoverers), Carol’s husband Hazen Tuck (Burpee Board Member), and several other volunteers who came from various professions. For several weeks these intrepid workers worked the hill down by hand, using paleo-picks, shovels, pry bars, etc.
Finally, after many hot, stressful days, they got into the bone layer. Once down to this level, tools shifted to more delicate instruments like awls, dental picks, small scrapers, tooth brushes, etc. Soon bones began to be discovered: ribs, more foot bones, limb material (tibiae and fibulae), and a partial femur. One thing was becoming clearer: this was no Struthiomimus; the bones were too large. Then came the “clincher”- the pelvis was discovered and exposed on its left lateral side. The pelvis is made of three paired (right and left) bones: the blade-like ilium, the pubis, and ischium. The ilium on this dinosaur had a distinctive “hook” to the front end and an interesting attachment at the mid-point. Also, the pubis had a distinctive rounded protrusion at its end, known as a pubic boot. The size and characters meant Burpee had a found a tyrannosaurid (member of the tyrannosaur family)! In the late Cretaceous you have several members of this famous family: Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Tarbosaurus, but by the very “end” you had just one left, the most famous member, Tyrannosaurus rex. However, some paleontologists like Dr. Bob Bakker and Peter Larson believe there is evidence out there for a smaller cousin of T.rex that lived at the same time, “Nanotyrannus”. Was it this controversial dinosaur that Burpee had discovered?
Several members of the Burpee Crew had to leave and go back to their “real world” jobs. That’s when the 2nd wave (which included me) was able to tag in and do their part. It was now July and the heat of the summer was in full swing. I was able to get a few weeks off from work and drove a loaned Ringland Johnson Construction truck out to Ekalaka. I met up with Mike, Joe, Chris and a few other volunteers and got debriefed. We were in a holding pattern. It was clear that heavy equipment was going to be needed to remove the rest of the overburden and widen/deepen the quarry. The BLM was petitioned to amend the permit and the waiting game for funding the renting of a backhoe was in full swing. After a few days, Burpee’s then Director Lew Crampton was able to get help from back home. I should take a minute to point out that while the digging of Jane was ongoing, Lew was all over Rockford raising awareness, excitement, and securing funding. I can attest (since Lew would later drag me along), that he left no city official, congressman, Kiwanis Club, Lion’s Club, Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, etc, unturned. It was thanks to Lew’s enthusiasm and showmanship that we were able to keep moving forward, but I digress (again).
Anyhow, we were able to get a local backhoe operator named Ernie Smith out to the site; quite a feat considering the nearly 3.5 miles this track hoe had to drive on a jeep trail. In a day and a half, Ernie and his machine did what it took 10 people three weeks to do by hand. As an aside, Ernie would come to our aid a few other times (including helping us out with Homer, our “teenage” Triceratops) and was a just great guy all around. Sadly, he passed away after a fight with cancer in the fall of 2010.
Once more of the bone layer had been exposed, work resumed. Very soon more bones were found: more ribs, limb material, and vertebrae. Then another exciting bone was found- Jane’s right dentary (jaw bone). Not only was it complete and nearly articulated with the surangular, but it still had several well-preserved teeth “rooted” in the alveoli. We uncovered more of it and realized that the teeth were laterally compressed and like the “Nano” teeth we had seen in the literature. Every one of us got up from where we were working to stare at this jaw. Mike kept saying “no…I can’t believe it, it can’t be”. I turned to him and said “I’m quitting my job and staying here until Jane is out”. Everyone looked like they wanted to start dancing, but sadly there was no music. The only tune running through my head at the time was the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”.
After the rush passed over, we went back to work and continued excavation. Unfortunately, my two weeks went by faster than I wanted and I went back to traffic patrol, theft calls, DUI’s, and domestics. However, I stayed in touch with everyone there. It was a real adventure! The remaining weeks involved excavating the bulk of Jane’s skeleton into a large “pod” that would eventually get plaster jacketed and reinforced. Ernie was there with his backhoe to help roll the 4000 pound jacket and get it loaded onto a flatbed. The “Pod” was taken out to the road where a Wood’s Equipment truck from Oregon, Illinois was waiting to take her home to Burpee. Jane rode the 1100 miles back to Rockford in style, and enjoyed a ticker tape, police escort into the Burpee parking lot where about 200 people waited to catch their first glimpse.
The total excavation of Jane took around 8 weeks. Over two dozen people from all backgrounds helped at some point with the excavation. We had assistance from the BLM, Ernie Smith, other Ekalaka locals, Peter Larson, Wood’s Equipment, ESTWING, Ringland Johnson, Rockford Blacktop, and the list goes on. Everyone had some part to play in Jane’s story and were integral in getting her safely excavated and brought back to Burpee, so hopefully you can see why the title of this blog is “teamwork”. However, for as much work as the excavation was, even more work was going to be put into her preparation and research. So, until next time…..