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From the bone beds and back MSU paleontologists unearth dinosaurs

By Evelyn Boswell

Dinosaur fossils continue to lumber out of their Eastern Montana graves, whispering secrets to Montana State University scientists and others who are trying to uncover the mysteries of their lives and deaths.

Dave Varricchio, who fills a new position as assistant professor in earth sciences at MSU, examines a dinosaur bone bed in Inner Mongolia. Note the dinosaur footprint near his hand. (Mike Hettwer photo)

Paleontologists have discovered 31 dinosaur skeletons in four years in the Hell Creek Formation around Jordan and the Fort Peck Reservoir alone, says Jack Horner, paleontologist at MSU's Museum of the Rockies. Not all were removed from the ground-or are expected to be. Of those skeletons, 10 were Triceratops, eight were Tyrannosaurus rex, five were duck-billed dinosaurs, and the rest were other smaller dinosaurs. They were all located on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service property.

"One of the coolest things to come out of all of this is that we have discovered that T. rex is a common dinosaur."


Jack Horner. (Jeannine Lintner photo)

"One of the coolest things to come out of all of this is that we have discovered that T. rex is a common dinosaur," Horner reported, adding that it was "very unexpected."

"It certainly suggests that T. rex was not a predator, because predators are very rare," he said.

Horner is heading a major study of the Hell Creek Formation in an effort to reconstruct the dinosaur-dominant ecosystem that existed there 65 million years ago. The Hell Creek Formation is about 350 feet thick. The upper part of that formation is known for harboring T. rex and Triceratops skeletons.

Originally planned as a five-year study, the project may be extended another year. A portion of the study that deals with geology will definitely be extended, Horner said. That study will be headed by Jim Schmitt of MSU's earth sciences department.

The Hell Creek project involves 13 senior scientists, several institutions, approximately 10 graduate students and an assortment of undergraduate students from all over the nation. Besides looking for dinosaur skeletons, the researchers examine sediments and analyze evidence of plants, birds and other animals that lived with the dinosaurs. The project costs about $250,000 a summer, with funding coming from a variety of sources. The primary donor is Nathan Myhrvold, a research associate with the Museum of the Rockies, founder of Intellectual Ventures and former technology chief at Microsoft. Other major backers are the Discovery Channel and Windway Capital Corp.

"The whole idea behind the study is to get as many different scientists to actually focus on interpreting this ecosystem-the top of the ecosystem when dinosaurs went extinct," Horner said. "... It's a great interpretive project for people from all over the country."

But the Hell Creek study is just one of several projects that occupy MSU paleontologists and students. Some of those involve dinosaurs. One deals with bison bones. They are:


Frankie Jackson. (Jeannine Lintner photo)

Jackson's discovery may contribute significantly to the understanding of the reproductive anatomy of dinosaurs.

  • This summer's excavation of a Tyrannosaurus rex in southeast Montana. One of two found around Ekalaka, the skeleton was discovered on Bureau of Land Management property around Mill Iron near the Montana-South Dakota border. An international crew commissioned by The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County dug up the skeleton. Schmitt and Frankie Jackson of MSU participated, focusing on sediments and environmental interpretation. "As part of this, we are getting a much broader understanding of the Hell Creek Formation and trying to tie in the Ekalaka area with what Jack is doing," Jackson said. "It's the same formation in Jordan and Ekalaka."

  • A sauropod nesting site in Argentina. This is another project that unites Jackson, Schmitt and Luis Chiappe of The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The project involves the discovery of the first dinosaur clutches that contain abnormal eggs. In an abstract describing the abnormal eggshells, Jackson wrote that previous reports of abnormal, multi-layered eggshells from the Mesozoic Era were based on fragments of unidentified eggshells or isolated eggs. However, this site produced a clutch of 30 titanosaurid eggs, including three abnormal, double-shelled eggs and 27 normal eggs. Exceptionally well preserved (they still had the eggshell membrane preserved between the abnormal and normal eggshells), the discovery may contribute significantly to the understanding of the reproductive anatomy of dinosaurs when compared to their closest living relatives-crocodilians and birds, Jackson said.

  • Fossil eggshell sites in western Idaho. In June, Jackson and Dave Varricchio of MSU's earth sciences department explored a site in the Caribou National Forest that contains several dinosaur eggshell localities. Their work, which also involved students from several universities in cooperation with the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello, resulted in the discovery of partial skeletons of two herbivorous dinosaurs and isolated bones of a possible theropod or meat-eating dinosaur. "Fossil remains of dinosaurs are extremely rare in Idaho, contributing to the importance of these discoveries," Jackson said.

  • A bison bone bed site along the Marias River upriver from Fort Benton. Located on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the site yielded four or five major layers of bison bones. At least some seem to be the result of prehistoric human activity. Jack Fisher, an MSU anthropologist, is heading the excavation project. Among those focusing on the geology of the site and how the bones were preserved are Jackson, Schmitt and Scott Patterson, an MSU student in the earth sciences department.

  • Exploratory projects in the Judith River Formation around Havre and the Two Medicine Formation near Choteau.

Dave Varricchio at the site of an ornithomimid bone bed in Inner Mongolia while a bulldozer removes the overburden. The small carnivorous dinosaur lived during the late-Cretaceous period. (Mike Hettwer photo)

MSU adds dino degree, fossil hall


MSU president Geoffrey Gamble (right) with Stacey and Thomas Siebel, major contributors to the museum's Siebel Dinosaur Complex scheduled to open in 2005.(Jeannine Lintner photo)

Two developments should raise the profile of dinosaur research even more at Montana State University-Bozeman.

One is the addition of a new hall that will triple the size of the existing dinosaur displays at the Museum of the Rockies. The other is a beefed-up earth sciences department that may draw more paleontology students to MSU.

The Siebel Dinosaur Complex will cover 10,000 to 12,000 square feet and is expected to open in 2005, reported Shelley McKamey, interim dean and director of the Museum of the Rockies, during a July ceremony to announce a $2-million gift from the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation. The donation is the largest single gift the museum has ever received and should cover "well over half" the cost of building the hall. The complex will adjoin the existing dinosaur exhibit area. The exhibit will be based loosely on paleontologist Jack Horner's latest book, "Dinosaurs Under the Big Sky."

The museum has the largest collection of dinosaur fossils in the United States, even larger than the Smithsonian Institution or the American Museum of Natural History, McKamey said. However, the public only sees a small percentage of them.

"We're going to take fossils from the collections and put them on exhibit," Horner said.

The second development that should enhance MSU's dinosaur reputation is a new position in the earth sciences department and new opportunities for students who want to study paleontology, said geology professor Jim Schmitt. Students can now earn a doctorate in earth sciences, and undergraduates can choose an option in paleontology.

Dave Varricchio returned to MSU to fill the new position in vertebrate paleontology. Varricchio was an affiliate assistant professor at MSU until he left to join the faculty of Carthage College in Wisconsin. After 1 1/2 years away, he came back to fill MSU's new position as assistant professor in earth sciences.

"It's real exciting for me, getting to teach undergraduate and graduate students in paleontology," Varricchio commented.

Frankie Jackson, research scientist in the earth sciences department, said she will continue her fieldwork, but she may join other faculty including Varricchio and Schmitt in teaching a paleontology field course, too. The field course will be required of undergraduate students focusing on paleontology.

"There are very few undergraduate degree programs in paleontology in the country," Schmitt noted. "This program will attract students interested in receiving a strong field- and research-based undergraduate education in paleontology. The opportunities for undergraduate student involvement in these areas are tremendous here."

Evelyn Boswell
Life on Ice | Big things from tiny technology | Avalanche Research | Searching Through Hell
Genetics are key to those amber waves of grain | From the bone beds and back
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Research Notes | Faculty and Student Awards | Research Expenditures for Fiscal Year 2003

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