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Diggers get glimpse of life 60 million years ago near Medora

Press Photo by Lisa Miller Mike Tinnes and Parker Blazek dig for fossils during an excavation east of Medora on Saturday afternoon.1 / 2
Press Photo by Lisa Miller Diggers unearth a crocodile tooth at a fossile excavation outside of Medora on Saturday.2 / 2

MEDORA -- Before there were cowboys and horses in Medora there were palm trees and crocodiles.

"It was a lot like south Florida here 60 million years ago," North Dakota Geological Survey State Paleontologist Dr. John Hoganson said.

He and two of his colleagues, along with about a dozen children and adults dug for crocodiles, champsosaurus (crocodile-like animals), turtles, 3-foot long salamanders and fish fossils Saturday afternoon at a recently discovered 60 million-year-old fossil site in the Badlands.

The site was discovered by a Department of Mineral Resources inspector while he was checking out an oil well site.

The inspector called Hoganson who called the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation to make arrangements for a dig.

This fossil excavation, sponsored by the North Dakota Geological Survey and the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, is in its seventh year.

"It's great for tourism," TRMF Group Sales and Events Coordinator Betsy Williams said. "We have many returning visitors that come to this every year."

"I've always wanted to do this -- ever since watching 'Indiana Jones,'" participant Charlotte Rouland said.

She and her daughter Ingred Wick, Wick's boyfriend Mike Tinnes and Wick's son Parker Blazek came out for the day of digging.

"Parker is really into dinosaurs and we thought it would be fun for him," Tinnes said, adding with a sheepish grin, "and we kind of enjoy it too."

Blazek found a few teeth but was just as happy cutting apart rocks and digging in the dirt.

Siblings Brianna and Bishop Arp, from Grand Rapids, Mich., along with cousin Phoenix Lofquist were also busy digging on the sunny and warm Saturday.

"Our grandparents signed us up," Brianna said, with Bishop adding, "But it's cool though. When they told us we were going to do this today I was pretty excited cause we got to go the heritage museum in Bismarck first and saw a bunch of fossils there, too."

Bishop got even more excited when he found a real crocodile tooth.

"Check it out!" He exclaimed when he dusted off the small black tooth.

North Dakota Geological Society Paleontologist Jeff Person came over and instantly became just as excited.

"That's quite the tooth you got there," Person said.

Michael Barnett and Emma Kanaan also participated in the dig.

Barnett had planned it as a day date.

"I thought it would be something different," Barnett said. "We both go to South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and had planned to go to Medora for the weekend, so I figured, 'why not?'"

All the fossils found during the week-long activity will be turned over the North Dakota Geological Survey for cleaning and preservation until they find a home in a museum.

Hoganson said the fossils give scientists clues into what life was like in the area millions of years ago, what the climate was like and how ecosystems, animals and plants came to be and why they are no longer here.

Other fossils being found at the site include various mammals, palm trees, redwood trees, magnolia trees and many other plants, he added.

"Our goal is to have them (the fossils) on display for people to view and learn from," Hoganson said. "It doesn't do anyone any good to have them sitting in a drawer."