A Hell….Creek of a Story!

I admit I have been negligent in my blogging.  I should have had a few updates and posts by this stage- however, long days in the field, limited internet connection, visiting paleontologists, and trying to work long distance on our Homer’s Odyssey: From the Badlands to Burpee Exhibit has made it difficult.  In fact, so much has happened in the last four weeks, I’m not sure where to begin.

First, I can start out by saying that compared to the last eleven field seasons, it was easily one of our best three, just behind Jane and tied for last year. That really is saying something considering some of the major discoveries we have made in Montana and Utah, like: Jane, the world’s most complete and best preserved juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex; Homer, our sub-adult Triceratops; and the massive late Jurassic dinosaur bonebed, the Hanksville-Burpee Quarry.

As many of you know, we wrap up our summer work in the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana. The Hell Creek is a world-renowned formation that is exposed in parts of eastern Montana, western North Dakota, and South Dakota. This formation records the “last gasp” of the dinosaurs, or about 1.5 million years worth of time from 67 to 65.5 million years ago. This was when famous dinosaurs like T. rex, Triceratops, the duck-billed Edmontosaurus, the armored Ankylosaurus, and many more flourished.  Living alongside the dinosaurs were many plants (ginkgos, ferns, cycads, conifers and flowering plants) and other animals like crocodiles, a variety of turtles, lizards, mammals, salamanders, frogs, several species of fish including gar and freshwater stingrays, and much more.

In addition to the diverse fauna and flora, the rock and fossil record tells us that Montana was drastically different in climate. Eastern Montana was close to a slowly receding interior seaway and had a more temperate-tropical coastal environment; southern Louisiana would be a good analogy. Finally, another important reason to work the Hell Creek is that it provides a snapshot of a paleo-ecosystem just prior to a major extinction event where about 70% of the organisms within the fossil record disappear.

As mentioned, the Hell Creek has been our bread and butter since 2000 and we have had great success. In 2011 we continued to work a locality that had a massive Triceratops. We also made several new discoveries, including a fossil turtle locality where we had in situ, articulated turtles (at least four species); a new sub-adult Triceratops skull site; and a possible Edmontosaurus site. This year, we came back to reopen some old sites and begin working the new localities.

We had immediate good luck before we even got to our localities. The very first day, we saw that road crews were completing massive grading and terra-forming to some areas along the main road. One of these areas was a sandstone road cut. This sandstone probably represented an ancient sandbar within a river channel.  We thought it best to check this out before the grader demolished the site.  SCORE!  Burpee Preparator Steve Clawson found a fairly complete baenid turtle (carapace and plastron) just beginning to weather out.  So we excavated that little fella and some other fossils, saving them from imminent destruction.

Following this bit of luck, we opened up all of our sites; a) The Double L Trike Site, b) The Sully Edmonto Site, c) The Ninja Turtle Site, and more.  I should point out that “opening” a site is in no way like opening a can.  It involves lots of pickwork and shoveling.  In the case of one of the sites, we removed about 300 cubic feet of mudstone by hand…not fun.  But once they are open they are open for business.

In the first two weeks several new bones were found at the Double L Trike site including more dorsal (back) vertebrae, two squamosals (frill pieces), and some other mystery bones.  The Sully site was a lovely site to work- easy soft sand and well preserved bones.  In the few weeks it was worked several skull elements to an Edmontosaurus were found, along with vertebrae, ribs, and a scapula.  Some surprise elements from a possible Dromaeosaurid were found along with some shed T. rex teeth as well.  We even went and visited an “older” Edmontosaurus site to remove some long buried material, In the process collecting a large, beautiful Edmonto humerus (upper arm bone).  It also appeared that more bones were weathering out, so this site may require more attention in 2013.

The big “little” finds were at the Ninja Turtle Site.  In 2011, we collected three partial turtles and one nearly complete turtle from this locality. We came back this year and within just a few weeks found six more turtles (representing at least 3-4 species), one of which had a 2-foot long carapace and a very large skull/jaws.  In addition to the turtles we were finding Thescelosaurus, Champsosaurus, and even some appreciable small Tyrannosaurus material.  Buried at this site were additional microvertebrates like Myledaphus (stingray) teeth, crocodile teeth, mammal jaws, gar, sturgeon and more.  In fact, as I write this we are still working this site- right up to the last minute.

We also found a few new localities where we made some “easy” pickings by collecting a nice Trike orbital horn and partial frill.  Our other microvert localities were heavily sampled, with lots of great material collected.

So aside from getting great exhibit specimens, why are we still out here?  The answer is simply: to tell as complete a story about this amazing paleoenvironment as we can, and compare it to other localities within the Hell Creek not only here in southeastern Montana but in places like North Dakota, or near Jordan, Montana.  The more specimens we have the more complete a story we can tell. That requires us to collect big fossils (dinosaurs), small fossils (microverts), flora (leaves and pollen), and even just plain old chunks of sediment as they can tell us about the environment of deposition.  But can Burpee do all this collecting and research on its own with no help?  Of course not! Paleontology is about collaboration and I can say with some pride we are collaborating with some of the best minds in the paleo community.

In the next blog I will talk about who we are working with, what sort of research we are going to do, and how this will help us tell this Hell….Creek of a Story!

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