Dinosaurs in the Dirt: Amateurs Dig With Pros to Uncover the Joys of Paleontology.
It's 103 degrees in the vegetation-starved badlands outside Great Falls, but no one is even eyeing the shade of a tarp strung up 20 feet away. How could we when a 150-million-year-old stegosaurus is at our feet, ready for excavation?
It has been a long time--decades, really--since dinosaurs adorned my bed pillows and were doodled in the margins of my science textbooks, but I jumped at the chance to come, as an amateur paleontologist, to Montana, where the country 's first dinosaur fossils were found in the mid-1850s. Visions of a "Jurassic Park"-meets-Smithsonian vacation (minus the death aspect) swirled in my head.
Institutions and museums throughout the state invite paying volunteers of all ages to help unearth everything from Griffen, the 150-million- year-old stegosaurus, to maiasaur nesting sites, troodon eggs, daspletosaurs, and even Tyrannosaurus rexes.
I spent time with two: the Judith River Dinosaur Institute (JRDI), the organization excavating Griffen, and the Old Trail Museum, not the site of a large-scale dig, but where I could have the chance to make a large discovery of my own.
On these expeditions, volunteers get to do nearly everything--the cool stuff, at least, the real paleos do: lie in the dust, brushing, chipping, and blowing away at the accumulated detritus of tens, even hundreds, of millions of years; help cast retrieved bones; and prospect for new sites.
Youngsters return home actually hoping teachers will assign the what-I- did-for-summer-vacation essay. I return home wondering if it is too late for a career change.
At the moment, I, with a dozen others ranging in age from 14 to post- retirement are in Rick and Linda Yurek's back yard with the JRDI. The Yureks found Griffen four years ago. It's named after the now-defunct Griffen Mine, which we pass on the 20-minute drive out to the Yureks' ranch from Great Falls.
Yurek was digging in his yard, a stone's throw from the front porch, to put in a retaining wall when his son Cody, then 17, noticed a large grayish-brown something protruding from the freshly exposed earth. Cody wiggled it around a bit and finally pulled a football-size hunk of rock out of the ground. It looked like a dog bone, but it was the bottom end of a stegosaurus tibia--not that the Yureks knew it at the time.
The retaining-wall project was put on hold. Though the Yureks didn't know any specifics about their discovery, "You could tell it was definitely old," Yurek says.
It took three years for a dino diagnosis, but when it came, it was big. Jack Horner, a Montana-based paleontologist who was the model for the character Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill) in the movie Jurassic Park, pronounced Griffen a stegosaurus.
It wasn't a big find in the literal sense--stegosauruses were 26 feet to 30 feet long and about 10 feet tall when full-grown--but scientifically, it was significant. A stegosaurus had never been found this far north. Even in more usual locations (southern Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado), only a half-dozen stego skeletons had ever been found (compared with 28 T. rex specimens).
From the Jurassic Period, 145 million to 210 million years ago, Griffen is twice the age of most dinosaurs found in Montana. He died before reaching maturity, too, a circumstance that makes him even more intriguing to researchers. The Yureks went looking for a museum to help.
Nate Murphy, a self-taught paleontologist and director of the JRDI as an amateur paleontologist in Malta, Montana, says he gets dozens of calls a month from people who think they have found a dinosaur in their back yards.
Murphy's colleague, Australian paleontologist Mark Thompson, took Mrs. Yurek's call. "Nate, this woman thinks she's got a stegosaurus," Thompson said, handing the phone to Murphy and twirling his finger around his ear. "Jack Horner says so," Mrs. Yurek told Murphy. The JRDI immediately signed on to dig it up. Volunteers then raced to sign on with the institute.
The team digging with me under Murphy's playful yet attentive eyes is the first to work on Griffen. Assembled from around the country and including such diverse occupations as high school student, cryptographic engineer, minister, management analyst and housewife, the group is working for a week. A new group begins the following week.
Murphy expects to have Griffen out at the end of the second week, but if not, he will bring more volunteer groups next summer. Because Griffen died as a subadult, Murphy expects him to be 18 to 19 feet long and 10 feet high and to weigh 4 tons.
Though many dinosaur finds end up far from home--the T. rex Sue, found in the Black Hills of South Dakota, lives hundreds of miles away on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago's Field Museum--most of the institutions running volunteer programs keep their finds close to home. "Dinosaurs should benefit the communities they are around," Murphy says.
Griffen will reside at the Phillips County Museum, the parent organization of the JRDI; the first cast of his skeleton will go to the Montana Children's Museum in Great Falls. "A kid stegosaurus going into a kids' museum--great," Murphy says.
Five days into the dig, we're still not able to hand Griffen over to the museum. The first few days are spent doing massive dirt removal-- unfortunately without the aid of the backhoe that originally uncovered Griffen. Murphy wouldn't allow it.
Volunteers--I don't arrive until Day 5--clawed and chipped their way through hundreds of pounds of gray-green Jurassic mudstone, a deceptively hard type of sedimentary rock similar to shale.
A few bones were found, however: ribs on the first and second days and two long, slender bones as well as another rib on Days 3 and 4. Initially, volunteers thought the ribs were ridges of rock. "But they realized what they were soon enough," Murphy says.
Because the bones are scattered, which is known in the paleontology world as an "unarticulated skeleton," Murphy says Griffen apparently died beside a stream bank. Stream flow or predators may have dislodged or moved some of the bones.
Murphy still expects to recover most of Griffen, however. He can tell from the fineness of the sediment that the stream was slow-moving. "It didn't have the power to really take the bones for a long trip," Murphy says.
After we remove soil from the hill, things begin to get more intense. We are able to dig under the previously found ribs--making their forms unmistakable--and find several new vertebrae. Each find brings major smiles crowned with amazement. "The only thing I can think to compare it with is walking on the moon," Murphy says. "You're coming into contact with something from a totally different world."
We don't pull out the bones out immediately, but we sweep clean the area around them in preparation for a plaster cast. To prevent any accidents this late in the game--"He has survived 150 million years; let's not step on him and break him now," Murphy says--bright orange circles are spray-painted around all of the bones, which, although obvious now that they have been tidied up, match the dirt.
Generally oblivious to the heat, we are splayed on the ground throughout our giant dirt pit. If you didn't know better, you would think we were looking for a lost contact lens. Some are kneeling, others are lying on their sides, propped up on one elbow. Still others, mostly the young boys, are face down, looking ready for a great meal of dust pie. A few people hum quietly. "Hi ho, hi ho, it 's off to work I go" is my tune.
Too soon, it is 5 p.m., quitting time. The Yureks live 100 feet away, but Murphy likes to let them have their evenings to themselves. Tonight, however, they have invited us all to a farewell barbecue and games of horseshoes.
"The whole thing is so unreal. I mean, we're digging up a dinosaur right outside the kitchen window," Mrs. Yurek says. "We love it."
I would love to stay and work on Griffen with the next group, but I'm off to the Old Trail Museum in Choteau, Montana, about an hour's drive away, to find a Griffen of my own. Because the area in and around Choteau (pronounced Sho-toe) is so rich with dino remains, the Old Trail Museum has innumerable smaller dig sites from which to choose--any one of which may be hiding a major find.
My group of two teens, a thirtysomething television executive from New York City and a soon-to-be-retired Florida state park ranger--heads to Seven Mile Hill with the museum's young, Ross-Geller-meets-Bozo-the- Clown curator and paleontologist, Todd Crowell. We scramble through scrub and over loose, lunar-looking bentonite dirt, which when wet becomes some of the slickest mud around, until we arrive at the site where a previous group found a promising bit of dinosaur eggshell.
After a quick set of instructions, we sit down--old clothes are a necessity, no matter what type of dig you're undertaking--and get to work. Zach, 14, and Evan, 16, jokingly begin to argue about what they will name the dinosaurs they 're going to find. Of course, they're each going to find one.
Zach likes Zachosaur, but Evan says it's tacky to name one after yourself. Evan, the program's intern and a fountain of dinosaur facts, is partial to Choteausaur. I would be tempted to call it Dinasaur, but the name is already taken, except for one vowel.
So far, all Zach has uncovered is a caliche nodule masquerading as a dino bone, but Crowell explains why that is still a worthwhile find: "Without it, we wouldn't be able to date the 'Zachosaur.' " Zach's eyes light up, and his smile widens. And it's only a pebble.
"You should see the kids' and adults' faces when they find their first dinosaur bone," Crowell says. "It changes them forever."
Five minutes later, Crowell's words are brought to life: Franklin, the Florida park ranger, has unearthed a fingernail-size piece of a dinosaur egg. Crowell himself gets nearly as excited as Franklin when he sees the shell fragment's position, vertical in the hard dirt. "We like vertical shell," Crowell says. "It means there is a good chance the rest of the egg is down there, maybe even a baby skeleton."
Crowell coats the shell with Butvar, an acetone-based preservative solution, a name both children and adults find endlessly amusing, and everyone resumes brushing with even more diligence than before.
Franklin isn't the only adult interested in dinosaurs. Lisa Wernick, from New York City, has been at the museum two weeks each summer for the past seven years. "Digging for dinosaurs is just so addictive," she says. "Especially out here, where there is so much to be found."
Earlier this morning. Wernick found a cache of bones under a juniper tree. "I'm excited about that, but I'd like to find something bigger," she says. A few hundred feet away from where we are digging is a larger bone belonging to a daspletosaur. Wernick found it last summer, and Crowell keeps it out to show new diggers. "You really never know what you can find," he says.
Wernick is digging away from the rest of the group and eventually comes to Crowell with a small plastic bag filled with bits of what she thinks is dino eggshell. Crowell can tell what it is immediately upon site, but to prolong the drama, he feigns uncertainty, saying he requires a "taste test."
He sticks a small piece in his mouth, pushing it around with his tongue, feeling the texture. "The tongue is much more sensitive than the hands." he says. "It's a common technique paleontologists use. You've definitely got shell here."
"There's a lot more still over there," Wernick says, all business, but underlit by a giant smile. "Should I go back and get it?" We all volunteer to help her.
* * *
To contact the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, call 406/654-2323 or visit www.montanadinosaurdigs.com, or send e-mail to Nate Murphy: email@example.com. The cost of a week of digging at the Griffen site is $850. The institute also offers several exploration weeks each summer. These programs allow volunteers to work at established sites as well as new ones while also providing some classroom and lab time.
The Old Trail Museum (www.oldtrailmuseum.org or 406/466-5332) offers two-day programs June through August for $200. In addition to prospecting for new sites and excavating, the program includes trips to nearby Egg Mountain, a world-famous paleontology site where the Western Hemisphere's first dinosaur eggs and the world's first dinosaur embryos were found.
Near Egg Mountain, there also are maiasaur and troodon nesting areas to visit as well as a campasaur bone bed containing the bones of about 2,000 dinosaurs. A portion of the campasaur bone bed is exposed, allowing volunteers to see the bones still in the ground. Participants also can log some lab time, helping paleontologists prepare fossils.
For those interested in dinosaurs but not wanting to spend time in the field, the museum offers separate tours of Egg Mountain.
Though no training is required for any of the programs, both institutions advise that participants have an outdoorsy attitude and be comfortable getting dirty.
"Don't expect it to be like the Discovery Channel. It can be tedious and hard but very rewarding and fun," Murphy says. Both programs decide minimum age on an individual basis.
(c) 2004 News World Communications Inc.
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|Publication:||World and I|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2004|
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