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Defeating the Rock

In Montana, encased in concreted rock, is a perfectly preserved tyrannosaur skeleton. Paleontologist Denver Fowler and his team returned again to the Judith River Formation this summer to further excavate the intact tyrannosaur and have returned ...

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In Montana, encased in concreted rock, is a perfectly preserved tyrannosaur skeleton.

Paleontologist Denver Fowler and his team returned again to the Judith River Formation this summer to further excavate the intact tyrannosaur and have returned with many more fossil samples for Dickinson Dinosaur Museum.

Extracting a skeleton from 10 to 15 feet of concreted rock is hard work, Fowler said.

"We had, for example, a beautiful shoulder blade preserved," he said. "One end of it was stuck in the really hard rock and the other end of it was stuck in soft rock. It naturally would want to break right through the middle of the bone, so I spent three days chiseling a very narrow channel around it so it would crack out perfect, and it did."

Of the three sites the team surveyed, the tyrannosaur site is the one Fowler said he'd most hoped would pay off.

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"We did okay at the other two sites, but the tyrannosaur really became what we hoped it would be, other than the fact that it was in really hard rock, which is good because it means the bones are preserved," he said. "It just takes more work to get them out."

The team also collected the fossilized plates and ribs of an armored dinosaur, and retrieved more of a mummified hadrosaur arm. Another site offered the remains of an injured duckbill dinosaur.

Paleontologist Liz Freedman-Fowler, team co-leader described the area as "incredibly rich."

"It hasn't been prospected, possibly ever before, so it's just untouched," she said. "The tyrannosaur itself is gorgeous. It's one of the prettiest fossils we've ever seen. It's just as nice as we hoped."

Jack Wilson, a fossil preparator, said the site lacked the luxuries of the museum's laboratory, such as fine tools to remove the rock surrounding the samples.

The work required heavy tools, such as a jackhammer, to remove layers of rock, and precision with a hammer and chisel to expose the fossilized bone.

"It's a whole different game out there when you're using a different set of more rudimentary tools, but that's really all you can use," Wilson said. "It's very satisfying, using chisels and defeating the rock. This incredibly hard rock."

Fowler called the conditions in Montana "rough"

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"We don't believe in fancy campsites," he said. "We had a fancy bathroom this year."

When Freedman-Fowler said they had a bucket behind a tarp, Fowler emphasized, "A bucket with a seat!"

The team was not completely isolated. Their camp was near a dirt county road. Trucks would pass by during the day, and even stop to ask what they were doing.

"Sometimes in the evenings we'd get these herons flying over and roosting near our camp, and we had golden eagles," Fowler said. "If you're visiting there for a day trip, it's beautiful. Staying there for a month and a bit, it starts to weigh down."

The rest of the skeleton will be lifted from the rock next year, Fowler said.

"We got to a point where we knew we couldn't finish it quickly, so we thought it's best to leave it in this concretion so that it's safe," he said. "You can whack it with a big hammer and it just bounces off, so it's nice and safe through the winter."

A presentation on the team's summer field work, titled "A 'Concrete' Tyrannosaur," will be held at Dickinson Public Library Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m.

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