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A dinosaur summer: Badlands Dinosaur Museum unveils discoveries

Fossil discoveries made during 2017 fieldwork to northern Montana were unveiled during a "Dinosaur Summer" event on Oct. 18 at the newly renamed Badlands Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson. Fieldwork co-leaders Drs. Denver Fowler and Elizabeth Freedman Fowler described the discovery of a new armored dinosaur and a wealth of new sites, three of which are expected to yield skeletons of the carnivorous tyrannosaurus.

“One of the new tyrannosaur sites has the potential to be really spectacular,” said Fowler, who is curator of the Paleontology Department at the Dickinson Museum Center.

Attendees later had the opportunity to chat with the field crew and see some of the fossils freshly prepared by field crew member Jack Wilson.

Three sites

Some of the most exciting discoveries made by the Dickinson team are new sites, from near Malta, Mont. For the first time, Fowler revealed they had found not one, but three sites expected to yield skeletons of the tyrannosaurs, as stated in a news release.

The Dickinson team has so far collected remains of both of the tyrannosaur’s feet, which were found articulated (bones connected together). He thinks that there is a very good chance that a complete skeleton is preserved hidden under the mudstone. The other two tyrannosaur sites are disarticulated, but have both yielded well-preserved skull bones.

The discovery of the feet is associated with Wilson’s birthday on July 23 when they were looking for surface fossils.

“I’ve worked with Denver five or six years now, starting when I was doing fossil preparatory work at the Museum of the Rockies back when Denver and Liz were there,” he said. “Denver and I are the main prospectors -- those who find the stuff. You never know what you’ll find on a given day. I found a duckbilled dinosaur and Denver found the first of the tyrannosaur’s articulated bones.  Then several days later, I found the first of my tyrannosaurs and on the last day of prospecting, I found the final tyrannosaur. Both of the tyrannosaurs I found have the front of the jaw and Denver has the feet.”

Referencing the friendly competition of fossil searches, Wilson added, “It always feels good -- Denver and I are very good at finding things. The competition is all in fun -- you never know who’s going to find what.”

When Fowler started in Dickinson, he was asked to make the dinosaur museum into a world-class institution.

“Now we have some real world-class sites to work on --  can you imagine what it would be like to have a real and unique tyrannosaur skeleton, let alone three, in the middle of the museum? That's now possible,” he said.

Nodosaur

The armored dinosaur -- a nodosaur related to the tail-clubbed Ankylosaurus -- is expected to be a new species because its fossils were recovered from a rock layer  -- 3 million years older than other known species of its family, according to the news release.

“We have a good proportion of the skeleton already, a lot of the leg bones, many ribs, vertebrae, parts of the pelvis and six or seven of the large armor spikes,” said Fowler. “The real prize is the beautiful complete skull; this is the most important part of the skeleton if you want to tell what species you have.”

The nodosaur was collected from private land near the town of Rudyard in northern Montana. Freedman Fowler has been working with landowners Dan and Lila Redding for 14 years and is looking forward to returning to collect the rest of the skeleton.

“Nodosaurs are not very common compared to the other plant-eating dinosaurs, so we are thrilled to find such a great skeleton,” she said.

Other bonebeds

Other discoveries by the team included bonebeds of duckbill and horned dinosaurs.  Freedman Fowler, an expert on duckbills, showed attendees a complete articulated arm of a small duckbill that will hopefully lead to a complete skeleton next summer.

The finds will keep the team busy for the next few years as they are collected and extracted from the rocky matrix surrounding the bones.

“It's going to take a lot of work, and we're hoping to find some support to help us out,” said Fowler. “Next year, I'm expecting that the tyrannosaur skeletons might need to be airlifted out by helicopter, then we have years of work in the laboratory afterwards -- we're looking for volunteers interested in cleaning up dinosaur bones, and of course, there's always a search for funding.”

Membership program

Part of the relaunch of the Badlands Dinosaur Museum -- previously called the Dakota Dinosaur Museum --  includes a new membership program. The museum is part of the Dickinson Museum Center -- a 12-acre cultural and natural history campus.

“Members can come in as often as they like to see progress on the new fossils and exhibits,” said Dickinson Museum Center  Director Bob Fuhrman. “There is also an opportunity for business sponsorships of individual displays, our Paleo Lab or collections space.  We look at the launch of this new membership program as an invitation for folks to become stakeholders in the museum.”

The presentation ended with a preview of several  new exhibits which are being installed. They include an exhibit on dinosaur eggs, and an upcoming display on how dinosaurs used their claws -- for which three new model dinosaurs are being constructed, complete with feathers.

“The purpose of the field report evening was to share in some of the excitement that comes along at the initial discovery stage," said Fowler. “It’s going to take years of work to collect and prepare these dinosaurs, but what an exciting beginning!”

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