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Dino diggers head out and about in Montana

Montanans will see their share of dinosaur diggers this summer, with Montana State University crews scattered from Ekalaka to Choteau.

MSU paleontologists said they will finish excavating a Tyrannosaurus rex in southeast Montana and will continue digging up a duck-billed dinosaur north of Rudyard and fossils around Jordan. A crew that has explored the south side of the Fort Peck Lake will look for new sites on the north side. Other crews will return to the Choteau area to look for more dinosaur eggs and to investigate the effect of an Iowa meteorite on a Montana bone bed.

"That ought to keep us out of trouble," Jack Horner said as he described the work he's coordinating this summer. Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, is one of the MSU paleontologists leading crews into the field.

Horner and senior scientists from around the nation have been exploring the Hell Creek Formation around Fort Peck for several years in an effort to reconstruct the dinosaur-dominant ecosystem that existed there 65 million years ago. This summer, in the sixth year of the project, crews will continue excavating some of the fossils they found in previous years and explore new areas.

"There seems to be a pretty good representation of bits and pieces of the whole fauna, so we can test our hypotheses," Horner said, referring to theories about the prevalence of T. rex dinosaurs in the Hell Creek Formation and other suppositions.

The main crew that worked between Fort Peck Lake and Jordan in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in previous years is now exploring the refuge north of the lake, Horner said. Meanwhile, a crew headed by master's degree student Laura Wilson remains on the south side of the lake to look at the paleo-ecology of the Hell Creek Formation. The Hell Creek Formation is about 350 feet thick. The upper part of that formation is known for harboring T. rex and Triceratops skeletons.

Farther south, but still in the Hell Creek Formation, crews will head to Ekalaka in early July and finish excavating the well-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex they started uncovering last summer, said Frankie Jackson from MSU's earth science department. One of two found in that area, the skeleton was discovered on Bureau of Land Management property around Mill Iron near the Montana-South Dakota border.

"The material is great," Jackson said. "It's really, really nice."

As a result of a three-way agreement, the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka has already received a cast of the dinosaur's lower jaw and other materials for display. Horner received thin sections of bone for microscopic examinations. The rest of the bones went to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

"It worked out great," Jackson said about the arrangement.

Other crews directed by Horner will probably return to the Choteau area sometime in August to look for more dinosaur eggs at Egg Mountain, the site that first revealed that dinosaurs had a family life. Paleontologists sometimes like to leave an area for a while to give the landowners a break from activity, Horner said.

David Varricchio in the MSU Department of Earth Sciences will work in the Choteau area, too. He has a grant from NASA to see if a bone bed there was affected by a meteorite that fell in Iowa 74 to 75 million years ago. The meteorite, thought to have been two miles across, made a crater more than 20 miles across.

In other dinosaur work related to MSU, the Rudyard Historical Society will continue raising money to construct a building to hold a replica of the dinosaur MSU is excavating near there. Jim Roen, president of the Rudyard Historical Society, said the building will measure at least 60 by 120 feet and will become part of the Depot Museum complex.

Posted by Evelyn Boswell for 6/14/04

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