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Saying goodbye to North Dakota’s dinosaur expert: Hoganson to retire as state paleontologist

Katherine Lymn

North Dakota’s dinosaur expert is retiring after 33 years.

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Paleontologist John Hoganson has taken care of the state fossil collection, which has grown to hundreds of thousands of fossils since it started in 1989, according to the Department of Mineral Resources.

Hoganson also helped grow the state’s paleontology program, which includes research, fossil exhibits and other outreach like the public fossil digs every summer throughout the state.

State geologist Ed Murphy, who oversees Hoganson at the DMR and has known him since college, said the paleontologist’s research spanned from fossils 450 million years old to 15,000 years old.

Among the most significant discoveries in Hoganson’s time was the mosasaur, a 34-foot-long sea lizard that lived in North Dakota when the state was covered with an ocean, 80 million years ago.

“These animals would’ve been living at the same time as dinosaurs, they were living in the oceans at the same time dinosaurs were living on land,” Hoganson said.

He said showing how the state’s landscape has changed is an important part of public outreach.

“Most people don’t realize that at one time North Dakota was covered by oceans … a lot of people don’t realize that at one time North Dakota was a swampland kind of like the everglades,” he said.

Hoganson’s enthusiasm showed in his speeches, especially for children, Murphy said.

“Most importantly, he’s able to convey scientific ideas and theories over to the general public, especially to children — that’s probably his strongest suit,” he said. “Children love dinosaurs and they pick up on his enthusiasm and we always have a packed house whenever he’s talking about dinosaurs.”

And to Hoganson, that’s important — he said children’s fascination with dinosaurs is a way for them to develop an interest in science through the study of fossils.

“That’s why I’m pretty passionate about working with the children so that they have a better feeling and appreciation of what science can do for us as a society,” he said.

Murphy says Hoganson is himself a “big kid.”

“He can’t hide how much he enjoys paleontology and people pick up on that in the crowd, especially children,” Murphy said.

Hoganson said it’s a good time for his retirement because the state’s new heritage center has opened with a huge new fossil gallery.

Murphy said he thinks the DMR will find a replacement for Hoganson in two to three months. The position is currently posted on national journals and websites.

Hoganson said he plans to keep researching, just more on his own schedule with a special status he’s been given for when retirement takes effect July 31.

“It’s not like I’m gonna disappear,” he said.