All across north central Montana lies the Judith River Formation, which is a fossil lair geological formation dating back to the late Cretaceous period approximately 76 million years ago. Since 2017, the Dickinson Museum Center has been conducting field reports and will be offering a livestream of this year’s field report later this month.
“We give one report per year, every year since 2017. [And] 2020 is therefore the fourth annual report. It's the Superbowl IV of paleontology field reports,” Badlands Dinosaur Museum's Curator Denver Fowler said.
Typically, the field report is a public presentation held at the Dickinson Area Public Library auditorium, where Fowler discusses the museum’s discoveries from that year's summer fieldwork, while also including any recent developments at the museum such as new displays, research or fossils found in previous years that are now fully cleaned and more. However, due to COVID-19, the presentation will be a socially distanced livestream presented at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, through the Dickinson Museum Center's Facebook page with simultaneous broadcast on Dickinson Public Access TV's Channel 19. The presentation will also be made available on YouTube after the livestream.
“We split our time — about 20% of time is spent looking for new sites (prospecting), and the rest of the time is spent digging small quarries — excavating skeletons found in previous years,” Fowler said. “The ‘star’ specimens from this year are two tyrannosaur skeletons we are excavating, and a bonebed of duckbill dinosaurs. One of our tyrannosaur quarries involved digging a hole 20-feet deep by hand. We'll be digging there again next year.”
Both of the tyrannosaurs that Fowler and his team are collecting are “exceptional,” he said. During the surveying of the area, the expedition team also found “little horns, jaws and other skull bones from baby triceratops-like dinosaurs; huge tyrannosaur teeth; duckbill bones with toothmarks made by tyrannosaurs biting the bones; raptor teeth and toe bones; literally hundreds of bones of all sorts of stuff,” he noted.
This year, Fowler wanted to conduct the field report after the “articulated tyrannosaur skeleton” was airlifted out of the area, but much of the heavy airlifting had to be postponed as helicopters were diverted to deal with fighting wildfires in California since August. So the retrieval of the skeleton will most likely take place next spring, Fowler said. With the large extent of bones that the museum crew have already collected, Fowler assured The Press that they had plenty to work on in the intermediary.
“Fossils collected from state-administered public lands usually are required to be officially stored within the home state. However, a museum can still borrow state fossils from another state. Regardless, we work on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), so state rules do not apply,” he said, explaining, “Since the acquisition of the dinosaur side of the museum in 2015, we have worked hard to upgrade our fossil storage facilities to meet federal standards (things like proper storage cabinets, data storage and policy, climate control and monitoring, security etc). In October 2018, our efforts had reached a sufficient standard so that we were approved as a federal repository for fossils collected from public lands administered by the BLM."
Fowler and field crew members — mostly volunteers from across the nation and other countries — are currently working in northern Montana, but he said he has parts of North Dakota on his BLM permit. They also hope to collect in southwest North Dakota and potentially Glendive, Mont., in the spring or fall of 2021.
“They're cool fossils, worth seeing. If people are interested in dinosaurs and fossils, outdoor adventures or science in general, then hopefully they will be interested in the talk. I expect that there will be plenty of people watching online from elsewhere in the U.S. and other countries,” he said.
When Fowler joined the Dickinson Museum Center in 2016, he set out to turn it into a "world-class museum.” With this year’s strides in discoveries, Fowler believes that the museum is on track and will continue building momentum with a “quality of the fossils in the exhibit and collections” that will define them as an institution of reputation.
“Good fossils and a prominent museum brings in tourism. Part of the museum's job is to provide a long enough visitor experience that it keeps museum visitors in town for a while, hopefully long enough that they go out and spend some money in local businesses; maybe they buy a meal, maybe they even stay in a Dickinson hotel. Local businesses are stakeholders too,” he added.
If people from the public are looking to get involved in the museum’s efforts, Fowler said they would appreciate any help with the cleaning of dinosaur bones, tour guides, exhibits or cataloging the findings. For more information, visit dickinsonmuseumcenter.com.