How many people does it take to unearth a triceratops skull? In this case, four: two “bone diggers,” a land owner and a cattle rancher.
Michael Kjelland, president of Fossil Excavators and Harrison Duran, paleontological excavation intern and undergraduate student at the University of California Merced teamed up for a dig on private property in the Hell Creek Formation of Southwest North Dakota.
The expansive Hell Creek formation, which spans four states, contains rock from the late Cretaceous period.
“The late Cretaceous period is right at the end of the reign of the dinosaurs. That’s right before the asteroid impact that struck the earth 65, 66 million years ago,” Duran said.
Kjelland and Duran expected to find dinosaur fossils on the dig, but weren’t looking for them at the moment they spotted the skull, which they named Alice after the landowner.
“In the spot where we found Alice, we were digging for leaf fossils, so we had found a lot of leaf fossils in sandstone deposits,” Duran said.
Around the corner from the hillside where they found sandstone leaf fossils, they saw her.
“Mike first spotted ... a bunch of fragmented bones on top of the ground, and called me over … and we (saw) that there’s something that looks like the base of a horn that’s going underground. We knew the second we saw that it was triceratops,” said Duran.
Kjelland recalled the landowner telling him that people had been to the land before, but ‘they never found anything like this.’
“Things tend to erode out, and if the lighting isn't just right, you could walk right by it,” Kjelland said.
Alice is the first dinosaur fossil Duran has uncovered.
“It was thrilling, and I know — if I can paraphrase Harrison — he said something like, ‘ Mike, I just want you to know, this is one of the highlights of my life,’” Kjelland said.
When they uncovered it, they realized it was upside down.
“We found crocodilian bone along with turtle shells, so we knew that there had been some sort of river,” Duran said. “What this animal did is it probably died, the methane in its body caused it to bloat up. (It) floated downriver and floated upside down and embedded into the side of a sand bank and was covered really quickly. So we’re assuming that’s how it could have gotten fossilized.”
It took about a week to fully uncover it and load it up.
“It's a painstaking, sometimes frustrating process because you want to uncover as quickly as possible but at the same time you have to go really slow. It's really fragile; it wants to crumble,” Kjelland said. “So you pick and brush off a little at a time and then you have to glue it, then wait for the glue to dry and pick off a little more off, then glue. So little by little, day by day, it sticks together enough for where you can basically plaster cast it up to get it ready for transport.Then we had to pretty much dig or make a road down to it with the Bobcat.”
Local cattle rancher Neyl Eagon helped transport the skull from the dig site. They braced it, put it on a pallet and loaded it onto his Bobcat.
“It was really stressful, kind of, because the wrong bump or going too fast — it was in my hands. If it broke, it was kind of my fault,” Eagon said. “It was quite nerve-wracking packing it out. I think it (took) like 45 minutes ... that little bit that we went.”
Eagon has known Kjelland for several years and has been helping him off and on. His family even helped plaster the skull.
“It started back 15+ years ago,” Eagon said. “He met my great uncle, and then my great uncle introduced me to him. We used to go fishing together back in the days when I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. He just came and got me and we went fishing. That’s how us two kind of got to be friends.”
Kjelland and Duran found each other through a mutual friend because of their shared interest of animal cloning. After a short period of talking through email, they met at the International Embryo Technology Conference. After three months, they planned a big-horn sheep clone project.
“In 2017 … we attempted to clone big-horn sheep, like Rocky Mountain big-horn sheep. If it would have been successful, it would have been the first time in history it would have been done,” Duran said. “Unfortunately, the surrogates we implanted with cloned embryos did not result in pregnancies.”
It didn't take long for them to discuss natural history and their passion for dinosaur fossil hunting. During the conference, Kjelland spoke of his excavation digs and invited Duran to join him for this dig.
Kjelland originally brought Duran to excavate a skull fossil that he previously found, Skull X, though after they had stumbled upon Alice, their priority changed for the summer.
“Now she (Alice, landowner) has donated the Alice specimen to Fossil Excavators so that way it will be available for viewing display for educational research,” Kjelland said.
They don’t have an exact age for Alice yet, though they can make an educated guess.
“Other papers and other experiments have been done where they’ve dated triceratops and T-Rex and basically the whole entire Hell Creek Formation, (to) around 65-70 million years old … Triceratops was definitely there around 65, 66 million years,” Duran said.
He said they would need to send samples to different labs and use various kinds of dating methods to determine a more precise date.
They haven’t yet weighed the skull, either.
“We don’t have an exact weight on it, but I can tell you we needed a forklift to lift it up. She’s a big ol’ gal,” Duran said.
Duran is back in California, but he plans to return to work on Alice — and another fossil Kjelland found after Duran left.
“I stumbled upon a third individual with a big massive piece of frill coming out, and so I started digging out that one, but there is more to dig out. That’s not complete, and I'm not sure how much is there,” Kjelland said.
He said he would like to have Alice on display.
“My vision is to have Alice rotate locations,” Kjelland said. “The goal is to use this find as an educational opportunity, not just reserve Alice in a private collection somewhere so only a handful of people can see her.”
Kjelland spoke to the importance of peering into the distant past, for it may show us an image of a possible future.
“It gives us a picture of what the ecosystem was like back then. You could look at the behavior aspect of animals, predator/ prey relationships, ... to see what would happen if global warming were to happen; would it be like how it was back then?” he said. “There was a lot of species extinction from things like meteorites, which is always a possibility still today. So I guess it is just an understanding the whole interconnectedness of things, looking to the past to try and basically observe what we’re doing in the present and how that can affect the future, if you will.”
Kjelland said he would like to thank the landowners for allowing them to dig on their property.
“There are several landowners that have given me permission out there … Thanks to the landowners for the opportunity; otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this, and I wouldn’t be able to bring students and other folks that are interested in fossil hunting,” he said.