Montana's Best Dinosaurs: Five Finds That Have Shaped Science

Sunday, April 1, 2018

From among rocks in a stretch of badlands near Ear Mountain, Bynum paleontologist David Trexler plucked a chunk that didn't seem to match the rest.

He licked his finger and touched the striped rock. It stuck, passing the fossil lick test.

"Oh, cool!" said Carter Lusk, a 7-year-old from Seattle on a recent expedition Trexler led from the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, as the paleontologist explained how capillary action in the fossil sucked up the moisture on his finger.

Recent rains had unearthed new parts of the ancient bone bed, and Carter discovered a duckbilled dinosaur's ankle in sediments deposited 74 million years ago. He turned the fossil over to find the lines of growth in the fossilized bone. A lick and it stuck.

When the dinosaur whose remains are in the fossil bed died, the Rocky Mountains were only halfway raised and hadn't yet reached what would someday be Montana.

"If we had been here when the dinosaurs were here, you would have seen to the east a big ocean that stretched to the Appalachians and to the west, a broad coastal plain," Trexler told Carter and his grandpa, Jerry Lusk of Kalispell.

Ice Age glaciers that scraped away a mile of sediments and the erosion that continued brought to the surface layers that encased the dinosaurs. Eventually, the badlands where fossils are best found will give way to grass.

The time between when fossils are exposed and when they're lost forever is short. In Montana, "we were almost too late," Trexler said.

But with some badlands still exposed, Montana instead became the source of some of the most important dinosaur finds ever.

Even the first documented dinosaur bone in North America came from Montana, near the Yellowstone River, Trexler said.

The same day — July 25, 1806 — that William Clark of the Corps of Discovery carved his name into Pompey's Pillar, he noted an unusual bone. It was in sandstone so Clark figured it must have been a fish bone.

"In Clark's mind, that sandstone was only a few thousand years old," Trexler said. "It was a footnote in history at that time that became an important milestone looking back."

Clark left the bone, which has long since disappeared.

Twelve years after the term "dinosaur" was coined, Ferdinand Hayden set off to explore the Upper Missouri Basin. From along the Judith River, he would bring back fossilized teeth of the first named dinosaur on the continent.

The next big Montana milestone in paleontology came in 1876, when Philadelphia paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, a Fort Benton cowboy and another man heard forces were gathering for what went down in history as the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

His theory that his crew would have the plains to themselves proved wrong as a Blackfeet war party appeared, riding high from the battle 100 miles away. When Cope's dentures fell out as he tried to talk his way out of trouble, the Blackfeet laughed. They found his rice rations so pitiful they left him with pemmican.

But that rice would have a profound impact in the end.

When Haden picked up fossils, they shattered. To return samples — such as those of the monoclonius he discovered — through the rough country, the men had to improvise a new approach. They had the insight to spread severely overcooked rice on the bones, which hardened into a jacket.

"Worked like a charm," Trexler said. "That was the beginning of the fossil jacketing process we still use today."

Those specimens ended up in Philadelphia.

Not only incredible fossil finds but also groundbreaking ideas from Montana have impacted the world's understanding of dinosaurs.

"All the hypotheses we present here were done here," said paleontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

"Montana is very significant," Horner said. "Almost any museum in the world with dinosaurs uses hypotheses from right here."


Jordan's T. rex

The most storied of all dinosaurs is the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Just after the turn of the century, Dr. Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History found the first Tyrannosaurus rex in the Hell Creek area north of Jordan.It was the first big meat-eating dinosaur to go on display in a major museum.

"Tyrannosaurus rex has been captivating the imagination of youngsters ever since," Trexler said.

The Montana T. rex fossil

When Rexy, as the T. rex skeleton from Jordan is called, came to life in the film "Night at the Museum," he continued his career as a lure to future fossil hunters.

"Bet you didn't know Rexy was a native Montanan," Trexler said.

Comparatively, T. rexes aren't that rare, with 30 or more specimens found, he said, but it's hard to beat their power to fascinate.

While paleontologists come to Jordan to take in the full offerings of the Hell Creek Foundation, for "kids and big kids" digging up the next great T. rex skeleton remains a dream 110 years after Brown's discovery, said Judy Lervick, PaleoWorld's Montana field facilities manager in Jordan.

"They hope to find the mighty T. rex when they come on a dinosaur dig," she said. "But there's only so many T. rexes in the world. But it's the whole lore of dinosaurs not just the T. rex."

Visitors can't see the first T. rex on display there, but Garfield County does have a full skull.

"Much has been taken out of this country, and it's on display somewhere else," Lervick said. "We do have nice triceratops."

One of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever found did remain in the state, Peck's Rex, found near Fort Peck and part of the Museum of the Rockies' massive T. rex collection. The Fort Peck Interpretive Center and Museum in Fort Peck has casts of the bones and a model of what Peck's Rex looked like when alive.


Maiasaura nests

As she picked through little black flakes scattered on the ground among tepee rings, Tori Yeager, 10, was at one of only about a dozen places in the world where dinosaur eggshells are known to have come from.

Not too far away, Trexler, his wife, Laurie, and his mother, Marion Brandvold, were fossil hunting when they found something that would change the world's basic idea of dinosaurs.

As the Trexlers packed up that day in 1977, Brandvold wandered off. When they saw her again, she had a big grin on her face.

"Look what I found," she said.

What she found was baby dinosaur bones.

"What we didn't know was this formation was unique in preserving what happened," Trexler said.

Maiasaura nest

Brandvold, now 100, put the dino baby bones in her Bynum rock shop, where Horner saw them and recognized how unique they are the first in North America and the first in a nest anywhere in the world.

"No one had baby bones," Trexler said.

The babies were several times too big to fit into their eggs but were still around the nest. At hatching, a creature can run off in search of food, have food brought to it or starve, Trexler said. Since these had grown at their nests, food was being brought to them.

"That changed the way the entire world understands not only dinosaurs but modern animals as well," Trexler said.

No longer could dinosaurs be categorized as "overgrown lizards," incapable of complex behavior such as forming nesting colonies, rearing young, hunting in packs and forming herds.

Three years later, a volunteer working with Horner, Fran Tannenbaum, found the first dinosaur eggs in North America at what became known as Egg Mountain.

Brandvold's find is on display at the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum. Duckbill displays are also a signature of the Depot Museum in Rudyard.



Its name means terrible claw, and this was one dinosaur you wouldn't have wanted to run into 115 million years or so ago.

A pack hunter with 60 teeth and retractable claws, the Deinonychus might have featured a fierce kick as part of its attack.

When paleontologist Barnum Brown unearthed the first Deinonychus in the Cloverly Formation near Billings, his discovery eventually would revolutionize the world's understanding of dinosaurs.

Skeleton of the dromaeosaurid dinosaur Deinonychus at Field Museum of Natural History. At the bottom is the skeleton of Buitreraptor.

"That was the dinosaur that demonstrated birds and dinosaurs are related," Horner said. "That is one of the most significant discoveries in the world."

Similar to the Velociraptor, Deinonychus is believed to have been up to 11 feet long, 160 pounds, feathered and active.

Though it would take years before anyone noticed, the earth around Brown's find also included fragments of what eventually would be identified as eggshells.

Three decades later, paleontologist John Ostrom found more Deinonychus fossils near Bridger that helped fill in the picture of this predator and launch a dinosaur renaissance. The bones showed marked similarity to modern birds.

The original find is at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Deinonychus fossils also are found at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History, Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology or closer to home at the Museum of the Rockies.


Triceratops horridus

Among the last dinosaurs standing, the Triceratops lived and died in what would become Makoshika State Park and the Hell Creek Formation.

A Triceratops skull discovered in Makoshika in 1990 and excavated in 1991 was the impetus for establishing an interpretive center at the state park.

Trexler remembers setting out in 1971 to find fossils to compare to some he had discovered. Ekalaka had an Anatotitan copei on display, as it does today, but that was it for the state that generated so many fabulous finds.

Tom Shoush, Makoshika State Park ranger, said East Coast museums took many of the fossils from Montana.

"Early on, pillage was the name of the game," he said.

The Museum of the Rockies has kept many of them in Montana, and with the triceratops skull, Glendive kept a big specimen from its own lands.

"It was very significant," Shoush said.

Triceratops horridus skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City

With the triceratops on display near its point of discovery, Glendive has an economic boost and Makoshika has a wonderful new way to tell its story and a draw for visitors.

"This way, when it's not extremely rare or fragile, it can be bolstering Glendive and Makoshika," Shoush said.

The Hell Creek Formation in Montana also is where the youngest fossil in the world has been found, a 65-million-year-old triceratops Yale scientists call "the last known nonavian dinosaurs of the Cretaceous."

The triceratops then butts against the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event, suggesting that dinosaurs didn't gradually die out, according to their findings in the "Royal Society Biology Letters."

"We refer to it as one of the last species," Shoush said.

Some posit that meat-eating dinosaurs must have come last since they would have had the carcasses of the plant eaters to feed on at the extinction event.

And recent finds in Makoshika of triceratops frills seem to support a new theory on the species and its development.

A Museum of the Rockies crew is digging up a triceratops now in the Hell Creek Formation near Jordan, Horner said. Twelve are on display at the Museum of the Rockies. Specimens show how the triceratops changed as they grew up.

"We've learned triceratops and others were very social. We know juveniles looked very different than adults," he said. "We look different so adults can tell who is a juvenile and juveniles can recognize adults."

The different aspects allow for big, social groups that can organize into safe havens such as nesting grounds.

Birds keep juvenile plumage until they're grown, humans look different than adults through their teen years and a juvenile triceratops too was different.

"That's very important for social animals," Horner said.

Two years ago, Horner and paleontologist John Scannella published a hypothesis that the triceratops and torosaurus were the same dinosaur at different ages, upending about 120 years of conventional wisdom.

The Museum of the Rockies has an impressive triceratops collection, and Makoshika State Park in Glendive has a complete skull on display.



A fossilized duckbill mummy with organs and skin intact, Leonardo once more has become an ambassador for dinosaurs in Montana and offers new insight for paleontologists.

"The thing about Leo is he's just a one-of-a-kind preservation," said Sue Frary, director of programs and exhibits in Malta's Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station.

"He's three-dimensional and has skin over 90 percent of his body — fossilized skin — and identified internal structures that could be his organs and confirmed stomach contents that give a timeline of his last day," she said. "We know what he ate for breakfast, lunch and a snack."

Meet the Museum’s Dinosaur Mummy, a fossilized imprint of the carcass of a duck-billed dinosaur Edmontosaurus. The specimen gained its nickname by virtue of the amazingly detailed traces of soft tissue—skin, flesh, and even tendons. It is one of the most complete examples of dinosaur remains ever found, and, as such, represents one of the greatest discoveries in the history of paleontology.

Leonardo also is the first full skeleton to be rapid prototyped. Ford Motor Co. white-light scanned him and then a computer sculpted a replica complete to the last detail.

"He's become known for the technology that has gone into studying him, very cutting edge," Frary said.

Leonardo has been elemental scanned to learn about the elements that made up his skin, which can help in determining what color he was.

"Now we know at least with duckbill dinosaurs how skin lay on their body, how their scales were, that they had a frill like an iguana running down their back," she said. "Everybody always thought that but with Leo, it's there, preserved in stone."

Frary is excited about what more Leonardo has to reveal.

"More will be done studying his internal structures. We'll be able to determine exactly what they are. More will be known about a dinosaur's identity," she said. "This quite remarkable specimen is still being studied."

Leonardo fundraises and promotes Montana as a dinosaur-lovers' mecca.

"Leonardo is a great ambassador for Montana in general and northeastern Montana in particular. He captures the imagination of little kids to adults," Frary said. "He really is a terrific representative for our area."

Trexler said Leonardo is an important specimen as the first large dinosaur with an intact body cavity.

The technology has not yet advanced — but someday will — to look inside him in a nondestructive way, Trexler said.

Leonardo also changed the way dinosaurs are collected and prepared. Before, people had blasted through layers convinced they couldn't be seeing skin.

"The problem is the skin impression makes a dinosaur look like a plucked chicken, and we expected them to look like a reptile," Trexler said.

While Leonardo is on tour, his exact copy is on display at the Malta dino museum.

*This story first ran in 2012.