Lightening Strikes and Expedition Updates

Steve the Sloth says "Watch for Falling Debris!" Fortunately only the chimney was damaged, and things are now back up and running!

Steve the Sloth says “Watch for Falling Debris!” Fortunately only the chimney was damaged, and things are now back up and running!

Things have been busy in the field at at the museum! A chimney on museum’s administrative building, the Barnes Mansion, was struck by lightening. The chimney was damaged and the email server was fried. So, if you’ve tried to email anyone at the museum in the past few days and your email bounced back, please try again!

The Week 1 Field Crew, thanks for all your hard work!

The Week 1 Field Crew, thanks for all your hard work!

The news from the field is much more fun, the field crews have made some exciting finds at both new and old sites! The braincase and a pterygoid were found at the “Garny” Triceratops site by Steve Simpson and the Highland Community College crew.

Another Baenid Turtle found at the Ninja Turtle site!

Another Baenid Turtle found at the Ninja Turtle site!

Another Baenid Turtle was found at the Ninja Turtle site.

Possibly a new juvenile T. rex site!

Possibly a new juvenile T. rex site!

A juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur was found while prospecting – crews are going back this week to investigate and see if there is more there!

Highway to Hell Creek 2014 is underway!

Burpee Museum Field Crews have been working near Ekalaka, Montana preparing for the 2014 Highway to Hell Creek field season for the past two weeks. Already they have opened the “Pearl” site and have unearthed more of the rare Oviraptor, as well as opened the Double L Triceratops site and the Ninja Turtle site. Hopes are high for lots of great finds this field season!

L to R: Simon Masters, Gene Sullivan, Steve Landi, Hillary Parks, and Maureen Mall pose after finishing opening the Double L Triceratops site.

L to R: Simon Masters, Gene Sullivan, Steve Landi, Hillary Parks, and Maureen Mall pose after finishing opening the Double L Triceratops site.

They have also attended and presented at the second annual Dino Shindig at the Carter County Museum among many other very notable paleontologists. The first round of expedition participants arrived at Camp Needmore on Sunday and will be digging with the Burpee Crew all week.

Camp Needmore, the field crew's home for the next few weeks.

Camp Needmore, the field crew’s home for the next few weeks.

Stay tuned to the Burpee Facebook Page for updates about our finds from the field!

Burpee’s Newest Treasure

(C) Dr. Julius Csotonyi

(C) Dr. Julius Csotonyi

In the summer of 2013, Burpee Museum’s field crews discovered a rare dinosaur while on expedition in Montana. This dinosaur, nicknamed Pearl, was found by Highland Community College Professor Steve Simpson and students while prospecting for new sites. When Pearl was discovered, she was part of an undescribed species of North American Caenagnathid Oviraptorosaur. The Burpee field crews were fortunate in the timing of the discovery, accompanying them in the field at that time were paleontologists Thomas Holtz, Jack Horner, Mark Goodwin, and Tyler Lyson. With their help, the Burpee field crew realized that this new find was exceptionally rare and very exciting.

Other specimens of this same undescribed species had already been found by the Carnegie Museum and the Marmarth Research Foundation, and a team of researchers was working on a description of the new species. On March 19, 2014 paleontologists Matt Lamanna, Hans-Dieter Sues, Emma Schachner, and Tyler Lyson published their description of a new North American Caenagnathid Oviraptorosaur named Anzu wyliei. Their description, “A New Large-Bodied Oviraptorosaurian Theropod Dinosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of North America” was published in the open access journal PLOSOne. Pearl would have been a feathered dinosaur, 3.5m (11.5ft) long, 1.5m (5ft) tall at the hip and weighing in at about 200-300kg (440-660lbs).  These dinosaurs are edentolous, meaning that they did not have any teeth; despite this it has been suggested that they were omnivorous and ate both smaller animals and plants.

Pearl will add to the understanding of this new species because she can fill in some of the missing skeletal elements that the holotype and referred specimens don’t have – particularly feet and toes. Keep checking in at No Stone Unturned for the most up-to-date information about Pearl and all of Burpee Museum’s other endeavors!

30 Days to Homer

Today is May 29, 2013, in exactly one month the “Homer’s Odyssey: From the Badlands to Burpee” will premier as Burpee Museum’s newest permanent exhibit!

(C) Burpee Museum

Part of the new “Homer” exhibit. Can you tell what it is?              (c) Burpee Museum

This week the first stages of installation for the exhibit began in SupplyCore Hall of Paleontology, as seen in the picture above. Can you guess what this structure might be for?

We’ll keep you updated as more pieces of this incredible exhibit go up!

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!


Expedition Orientation

Attention any and all interested parties:

There will be an expedition orientation tomorrow at Burpee Museum from 1-3pm for anyone interested in our upcoming Highway to Hell Creek (Montana) expeditions. There are spaces still available for the Hell Creek Expeditions.  So stop on by, ask questions and learn about what the expedition experience is like (or email us if you’re not nearby) and sign up if you decide you’d like to join us in Montana. We’re looking forward to seeing you there!

Additional information about our Highway to Hell Creek Expeditions can be found here:

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


A Decade of Discoveries

It’s May 17th, 2012 and we (Cory Schabacker and I) are on our way to open up the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry for our summer field work.  As I am sitting in a Days Inn outside of Denver, I am reflecting on the 10 + years that have led up to this.  I can remember in early 2000, being approached by former Curator and my friend, Michael Henderson about the possibility of starting a field program to collect dinosaurs.  At the time I was still a Deputy Sheriff for Ogle County, but had volunteered as a young man for Burpee in the late 1980s and early 90s and always believed that Burpee could do anything if it set its mind to it.  Mike had been in contact with geology students from the University of Wisconsin who had been conducting late Cretaceous dinosaur field work on public lands in the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana and Burpee had a chance to go with them to “see how it was done”.

Scott Williams, Andriana Villa-Gomez, and Mike Henderson preparing to leave for the first trip to Ekalaka, MT

Initially, there were some hurdles.  First, as the museum was well into its FY budget, nothing was set up to fund the project.  Also, Mike was the only staff for the Collections so he needed help organizing an exploratory trip.  I was very confident that this endeavor could lead to big things, I believed in Mike’s idea and above all, I believed in Burpee Museum.  So, I made a modest donation to help fund a 10 day exploratory trip to visit the U of Wisconsin’s program and did what I could to help Mike organize the trip.  Toward the end of May 2000, Mike, I and a former Burpee Board Member traveled to Ekalaka, Montana.  We met up the folks from the University and camped with them.  It was a real crash course and learning experience.  For one, I hadn’t camped in a tent since my Boy Scout days, so just getting our “too big for 2 guys” tent up was a real fiasco.  Also, as luck would have it, it rained for 7 out of the 10 days were there and as anyone knows, in the Hell Creek, if it rains, you cannot walk, drive or pretty much do anything.  So several days consisted of us being stuck in our tent.  Every night at about 3AM, some little creature would wake me up as it would tap my head through the tent wall. It took me several days to realize why the unknown creature was trying so desperately to get in…..Mike had open soda cans and half eaten candy bars on his side of the tent.  As long as I am telling tales out of school, I should point out that Mike mumbled to himself a lot, which also made sleeping a chore.   Finally, May night temperatures can drop well below 40 degrees….in fact two nights in a row got down to 30 degrees.  Did I mention our toilet was a 5 gallon plastic bucket with a hole cut in the bottom and a toilet seat taped to it?? Needless to say…it was a miserable experience, but we loved every second of it.

On the 5th or 6th day it cleared and warmed up to the mid 70s.  The next day we were able to go with the UW crew to see their localities.  I was able to spend two days at a Triceratops excavation, where they had a disarticulated specimen they were working on.  I can remember clearing sitting next to a four foot long “Trike” femur, looking out over the Hell Creek badlands and thinking to myself “this is what you always wanted to do”.   We returned to camp with some new finds and in a few days the Burpee visitors had to leave.   But we were pumped.  We were certain we could do this on our own.  On the 1100 mile drive home we formulated our plans for the next season, which would include Burpee getting its own BLM Permit to work public lands.  So, we returned home, I went back to my “cop job” and continued volunteering in the lab at Burpee.  We could not wait to get out there a make a big discovery.  Of course we had no idea at the time, that we would…eventually find. “Jane”, our famous juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex would have to wait one more year to be “discovered”….but that’s my next blog so stay tuned!!