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North Dakota paleontologists provide public fossil digs in state

RURAL STARK COUNTY--Fossils are a small connection to the past world. The remnants of a once-alive animal or organism paints a picture of what life might have looked like millions of years ago.

The North Dakota Geological Survey hosts public fossil digs like the one currently happening in the Dickinson area. Left, Rachel Ford along with her mother Trissa, middle, participate in the public digs every year. Senior Paleontologist Clint Boyd and Paleontologist Jeff Person facilitate the digs. (Press Photo by Kalsey Stults)
The North Dakota Geological Survey hosts public fossil digs like the one currently happening in the Dickinson area. Left, Rachel Ford along with her mother Trissa, middle, participate in the public digs every year. Senior Paleontologist Clint Boyd and Paleontologist Jeff Person facilitate the digs. (Press Photo by Kalsey Stults)

RURAL STARK COUNTY-Fossils are a small connection to the past world. The remnants of a once-alive animal or organism paints a picture of what life might have looked like millions of years ago.

Paleontologists work to paint that picture as accurately as possible.

Because of the North Dakota Geological Survey, along with public help, the picture is getting a little more clear.

The NDGS holds public fossil digs every year to unearth the treasures untouched for millions of years.

"This is a great opportunity to get specimens collected to answer the questions that we want to answer to give people information that they want to know about North Dakota," said Senior Paleontologist Clint Boyd. "And at the same time, we can involve the people of North Dakota and the surrounding areas in collecting that information."

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This week their efforts are focused on an area 30 miles southwest of Dickinson that Boyd says is very important to NDGS research.

"There's a lot of important questions being answered about environment in North Dakota and evolution in general that is coming from this site," said Boyd.

The dig focuses on fossils that date back to 30 million to 35 million years ago.

Animal fossils that could be at the site include saber-toothed cats, rhinos, tortoises, tiny deer and horses.

"We're already seeing we are getting new species out of here that aren't recognized from other places," Boyd said. "We've got this, it's a very early bear-like animal that's out here, but it's only the size of a fox."

Though important work is being done in the state to bridge the gaps left in research, with budget cuts looming, Boyd said he is worried about what that means for public fossil digs.

"We usually do five of these public digs a year," he said. "We'll see what that becomes with the budget cuts. We'll still have something next year. This specific public dig is not in danger of going away anytime soon. Way away on the other side of the state digs may have to be trimmed back for a little while, we'll have to see. We have no idea with how up in the air everything is right now."

NDGS Paleontologist Jeff Person said he believes they are doing good field work and the results are there.

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"I like to think that the legislators like what we are doing," he said. "We are always coming out with good news."

Longtime volunteer Trissa Ford may have never stumbled across working with the NDGS if not for the public digs.

Ford's daughter, Rachel, was interested in going into paleontology eight years ago so Ford decided to take her to a public dig. The family has been hooked ever since, traveling from Mandan to Dickinson and Medora every year for the digs, as well as at others digs held in the state.

"My family always collected rocks and stuff," she said. "I liked doing it when I was a kid and she kind of had an interest in it, paleontology and I knew they had digs so I said 'Let's go on one' and she fainted on it."

Though that might have ended Rachel's professional dreams, she jokes that now it's her mom's thing.

"This was supposed to be my future job but now it's more or less yours," she said to her mom.

Ashley Ellison of Medora went to two digs near her town last year and was excited to come back for more this year.

Ellison said the dig in the Dickinson area has been the most exciting she has been on because everywhere she turned there were fossils.

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"Western North Dakota has an amazing array of fossil sites," Boyd said.

The NDGS will be holding two more public fossil digs in the area, including one near Medora from July 12-14.

While Medora is pretty dry now, between 60 million and 65 million years ago it was very swamp-like and participants may be able to find crocodile fossils according to information provided by the NDGS.

Promptly after the three-day dig, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and NDGS will be co-sponsoring a public dig near the park from July 15-17. It'll focus on fossils from 55 million to 60 million years ago with remains of crocodiles, fish, champsosaurus, clams, snails and other animals that inhabited the swampy land.

For more information visit www.dmr.nd.gov/ndfossil .

Related Topics: MEDORADICKINSON
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