Mountains & Minds Magazine:

Paradise in Hell Creek

April 02, 2007 -- by Evelyn Boswell


Jack Horner relaxes in Snap Creek camp, the makeshift summer home of paleontologists, students and visitors trying to reconstruct the Hell Creek Formation. The camp is located northeast of Jordan, Mont., between a corral and bunkhouse owned by Jay and Judd Twitchell. (Photo: Jay Thane)
Jack Horner relaxes in Snap Creek camp, the makeshift summer home of paleontologists, students and visitors trying to reconstruct the Hell Creek Formation. The camp is located northeast of Jordan, Mont., between a corral and bunkhouse owned by Jay and Judd Twitchell.


Jack Horner could have gone anywhere to find the perfect spot for reconstructing the world as it looked 65 million years ago. The paradise he was looking for, however, was a patch of Montana Badlands called Hell Creek.

"I literally traveled all over the world looking for the ideal place to do this project. I had funding to go anywhere," said the Montana State University paleontologist who is known for his ground-breaking discoveries about dinosaurs, as well as his books and work as a consultant on Jurassic Park movies.

Horner is about three-quarters through an 11-year quest to learn everything about an ecosystem that was dominated by dinosaurs. He spends his summers living out of a Starcraft camper and moving between Bozeman and the project's field camps in Eastern Montana. Despite the conditions that make its name fitting, the Hell Creek Formation was the paradise he was seeking. The 300-foot-thick formation is a layer of rock deposited at the end of the Cretaceous Period. It extends into the Dakotas and Wyoming, but Horner is focusing on the formation exposed between Jordan and the Fort Peck Reservoir.

"It's the youngest dinosaur-dominant ecosystem we can get our hands on," Horner explained. "It's right before the extinction, and the strata is all lying flat. It hasn't been deformed by mountain building. The Missouri River flows through it so there are lots of places for badlands to form.

"It's the ideal location to do a project like this," Horner continued. "We chose here because of accessibility and because of how much stuff has already been collected there. It has been collected since the early 1900s."

Man shares a mission

Horner's goal is to study all the dinosaurs, rocks, sediments, plants, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals that existed at the same time in the Hell Creek Formation. Because it is an ambitious project, too large a job for one person or institution, he reached out to 12 other senior scientists and recruited graduate students and undergraduate students. The senior scientists come from all over the country, specializing in different aspects of the ancient ecosystem. Mary Higby Schweitzer, a Helena native, comes from North Carolina State University, for example, and focuses on biomolecules. Mark Goodwin comes from the University of California, Berkeley, and studies dinosaurs. The students attend MSU and elsewhere.

"I love it out here," Becky Schaff, an MSU senior and assistant crew chief, said last summer at the Snap Creek camp. "I live for this. All the rest of the year when I'm sitting in my classes, I think about being out here."

Alessandro Carpana, an Italian, said he wrote an admiring e-mail to Horner a few years ago and it led to him joining Horner's field crew. Last summer was his second season in Eastern Montana. He normally studies geology at the Universta di Parma.

"It's very cool," added Sonya Scarff, a 2006 MSU graduate from Bozeman who scored the big find of last summer. Walking through the badlands, she looked up and saw bone fragments scattered on a hill. Climbing closer, she saw an orbital horn, which led to the discovery of a partial skull and frill of a baby triceratops. The discovery was so significant that it sent Horner back to Bozeman to hold a press conference at MSU's Museum of the Rockies.

"It's one of the four or five baby triceratops that have ever been found in the world." Horner announced. "We are very excited about this. This is probably one of the best baby triceratop skulls ever found."

It's common to find adult triceratops in the Hell Creek formation, but this was a baby that looked like it died before it was one year old, Horner added. That's significant, he said, because it fills a gap in a collection showing how triceratops grew and developed.

Goodwin, from UC, Berkeley, said, "It fits nicely into our growth series. It's sort of like finding another piece to a puzzle."

Not everyone's paradise


John Scannella, left, and Sonya Scarff endure long days and sweltering heat as they painstakingly remove dinosaur fossils from the Hell Creek Formation between Jordan and the Fort Peck Reservoir. (Photo: Jay Thane)
John Scannella, left, and Sonya Scarff endure long days and sweltering heat as they painstakingly remove dinosaur fossils from the Hell Creek Formation between Jordan and the Fort Peck Reservoir.

"This is like hell, really," an MSU student said last summer during a six-hour drive from Bozeman to join Horner and his crew at their makeshift camp northeast of Jordan. Curious about Horner's work and wanting to see a dig for herself, she watched as wildfires darkened the sky and the road's pavement turned into scoria, then dirt as it passed through the badlands. She finally arrived at the Snap Creek camp, located between a corral and bunkhouse on the Judd and Jay Twitchell ranch. Leathery campers reported killing a rattlesnake near the outhouse. Temperatures hit at least 106 degrees the day before, they said. Heat exhaustion sidelined a crew chief.

The student had thought about staying a month, but she changed her mind after helping whisk away dirt and rocks from the newly found baby triceratops. After spending a day searching for shade, avoiding snakes and watching her drinking water dwindle, she was ready to return to Bozeman.

"Talk about torture," she said. "They are all cheerful about it, but geez, this is a freaking nightmare for me."

Starting at the bottom

The work at the site is as rich as the setting is stark.

The project to reconstruct the Hell Creek Formation began with funding from Nathan Myrhvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft, founder of Intellectual Ventures and affiliate research associate of paleontology with the MSU Museum of the Rockies. Although "lots and lots" of museums had "lots and lots" of fossils from the formation, Horner said he discovered that many of the early collectors were more interested in trophies than research. They took the impressive fossils that would attract visitors and left the fragments and smaller specimens.

...So many fossils, so many findings, that a five-year study turned into an 11-year project.

To get a scientifically reliable picture, Horner said, "We had to go back and really concentrate on those areas in certain geological layers to get a really good handle on the whole unit."

He told his crews to start at the bottom of the formation and work their way up, Horner said. They were to record or pick up every specimen along the way, even if it looked like junk.

The outcome was so many fossils, so many findings, that a five-year study turned into an 11-year project, Horner said. Besides the baby triceratops, the paleontologists discovered 31 dinosaurs in four years alone. Ten of them were triceratops, eight were Tyrannosaur rex and five were duck-billed dinosaurs. One of the T. rexes turned out to be a female who died during an egg-laying cycle. She also had soft tissue and hollow blood vessels preserved in her bones.

The entire Hell Creek Formation represents somewhere between 2 and 3 million years, Horner said. If it turns out to be 3 million, he expects to see some evolutionary change throughout the formation. "If it's less than that, we probably wouldn't see very much."

Beyond those things, Horner said he's not ready to reveal more details about the Hell Creek findings. Although the senior scientists park their RVs next to each other in camp, ride together to dig sites and chat during supper, even they are keeping their professional thoughts to themselves.

"It really is the only way to do this kind of research," Horner said. "It's the only way to get a big picture of things -- working in concert, but still working blindly so you are not affecting one another."

The scientists will finish excavations in 2009 and finally gather to compare results and synthesize their findings when the project wraps up in 2010, Horner said. People will learn more about the paradise named Hell Creek when the experts explain their results in scientific journals and at conferences, public forums and museum displays.


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