A Breather….

As I have been alluding to in my previous posts, the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry field season went very well.  In fact, this has been one of the few years we wrapped up on schedule, and removing the large plaster jackets went swimmingly.  My only concern was what sort of weight limit our new field trailer could handle.  We were able to fill it with all of our supplies, the new bones from this year, and two large (and I mean large) jackets from 2011.  Rough estimate on the weight was easily 4000 + lbs.  We left Utah on a Saturday and slowly made our way through the Rockies, arriving in Northern Illinois late on a Sunday; all in all, about 24 hours of driving- which isn’t too bad considering our cargo.  We unloaded all of our material into the Burpee Collections and began to catch up on work that waits for us while we are on the road.

A forklift loads the "Jimmy Jumble" jacket into the trailer in Utah in preparation for transport to Burpee Museum.

A forklift loads the “Jimmy Jumble” jacket into the trailer in Utah in preparation for transport to Burpee Museum.

I’m happy to say we had a few weeks at home, which allowed me to divert some attention to our upcoming Homer’s Odyssey: From the Badlands to Burpee exhibit, which we plan to open in the spring of 2013.  Additionally, I was able to catch up on lab work, collections organizing, and emails (which are actually very time-consuming).  While all this is going on, we are switching gears and preparing for the last bit of our field work, our Highway to Hell Creek Program.

The Hell Creek Formation is a geologic formation which is significantly younger than the Morrison Formation, where our Hanksville-Burpee Quarry is located.   The Hell Creek Formation records that last snippet of the Cretaceous Period, or the end of the age of dinosaurs, about 67-65.5 million years ago.  Despite the difference in time, the depositional processes that created both the Morrison and Hell Creek are similar- fluvial or river-borne deposition.  Like the Morrison, the Hell Creek is comprised of mudstones, sandstones, clay, and siltstone; all the “stuff” that rivers leave behind.  During the end of the Cretaceous parts of southeastern Montana and the western Dakotas were coastal floodplains and river systems and provided perfect conditions to bury large (and small) animals after they die.

Of course, by the time of the latest Cretaceous, our dinosaur fauna had changed dramatically.  Gone are the large sauropods and Stegosaurus, replaced by other herbivorous dinosaurs like the duckbilled Edmontosaurus and the horned Triceratops.  We have a large theropod, (without a doubt the most famous of dinosaurs) Tyrannosaurus rex; we also have smaller theropods, like the ostrich-mimic dinosaur Struthiomimus and the fleet-footed raptor Dromaeosaurus.  There are large armored dinosaurs like Ankylosaurus (probably one of the rarest of the Hell Creek dinos) and the “bone-headed” Pachycephalosaurus.

In addition to the dinosaurs, there were smaller vertebrate animals scurrying around like: crocodilians, turtles, lizards, snakes, gar, freshwater stingrays, other fish, birds, and mammals. The flora included ferns, cycads, ginkos, and conifers, but also flowering trees and plants.  If you were able to take a time machine back to southeastern Montana 66 million years ago and you didn’t immediately see a dinosaur, the other plants and animals might trick you into thinking that you have ended up in modern-day Florida or Louisiana.   However, if you hung around long enough eventually you would see a Triceratops lumber by, or a pterosaur fly overhead, or worse yet, the roar of a T. rex in the distance.

We have been collecting material from the Hell Creek Formation since 2001.  This is where we found Jane our juvenile T.rex, Homer our “teenaged” Triceratops, several other partial Triceratops specimens, a “pachy” dome, a new alligatoroid, a nearly complete fossil turtle, and lots of microvertebrate fossils.  The Hell Creek is a superb locality to collect material that gives us a snapshot of life just prior to one of the largest mass extinctions that occurred about 65.5 million years ago.  Everyone knows that the dinos died out, but the story is much larger than that.  Not only did the dinosaurs go extinct, but all the marine reptiles, pterosaurs, coiled ammonites, many species of mammals, coral, plants, and much more.  Think of collecting material here as adding another page or two to a book that has chapters missing.

That being said, we have a lot of work to do this summer; as mentioned, we have a large (presumably) adult Triceratops skull and skeleton to finish collecting, a new juvenile “trike” skull to collect, a possible Edmontosaurus to excavate, and a very exciting locality where we have articulated turtles and other small “stuff”.   A lot of this material will end up in our upcoming Homer exhibit, so as soon as we get back to Burpee we will begin preparing this for research and exhibit.  I’d like to say that the work Burpee has been doing in Montana has contributed to our knowledge of the latest Cretaceous of Montana and, in my humble opinion, we continue to make important finds out there….and it’s just plain fun!

So the last few days that I am here will involve making sure our permits are in order, getting our field vehicle serviced, checking our supplies and reloading our trailer, making sure all the trains are still on their tracks for the Homer’s Odyssey Exhibit, beginning a teaser exhibit for our Green River/Fossil Lake Fish, loaning some bird specimens out to a neighbor museum, etc.  Did I mention laundry, packing, and visiting friends and family before I/we leave?  So as the title says….we got our “breather”.

Keep checking back for our Montana updates!


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