Hell Creek: KU Researchers Extract Rare Juvenile T. Rex, Fossil Treasures
University of Kansas bone hunter Kris Super prowled the base of steep-edged hills in the Hell Creek formation for evidence to solve mysteries millions of years in the making.
Fish-fossil exploration in western Kansas helped develop Super’s eye for tiny pieces of bone that had tumbled to the ground when eroded by wind or water. This detective work required quick identification of fragments, or float, among rocky debris. Bone trails might lead up hillsides and, possibly, to the final resting place of a dinosaur. That was the method relied upon as he climbed a steep grade to the exposed bony frill of a bulldozer-like, three-horn Triceratops.
It was a spectacular experience to run a finger over the rounded edge of the frill and along the delicate horn of an animal that lived more than 66 million years ago and was ripe for excavation by paleontologists.
“I don’t mind getting a little dirty, especially if there’s a dinosaur involved,” said Super, who graduated from Fort Hays State University before arriving at KU.
Still, it was just a Triceratops. Relatively common in this desolate, rugged geological formation. It would be the objective of a future extraction team. The immediate prize was nearby.
Super relied upon the same scouting technique in 2016 to lock onto bits of what turned out to be a Tyrannosaurus rex, the apex carnivore with massive skull, impressive teeth and heavy tail that more recently added movie star to its list of attributes. “Just luck,” he said. This, however, was no ordinary T. rex. It was the rare discovery of what is believed to be a juvenile. Science has fewer than a dozen of these immature T. rex fossils from which to build a scientific record.
“There haven’t been many discovered,” said David Burnham, a vertebrate paleontologist at the KU Biodiversity Institute. “We’re adding to evolutionary history.”
In 2016, KU began excavating the site of the T. rex about 25 miles off the nearest paved road and far removed from civilization in Jordan, which hosted two bars and one traffic light. On a rocky knoll amid grazing land 1,000 miles northwest of Topeka, the KU researchers unearthed skull, teeth, claws, femur, pelvis and dozens of other pieces of the T. rex.
Consensus among KU researchers: The specimen was a female that died as a youth. Evidence existed of a fractured rib that healed and there were signs of an injury to one of her feet. The T. rex likely perished in a cataclysmic event, such as a massive flood that buried her in a wet forested area approximately 67 million years ago.
Burnham’s crew of graduate and undergraduate students as well as volunteers have returned the past two summers to draw out more of what Hell Creek has to reveal about the T-Rex.
Tools of the trade ranged from jackhammer and shovels to delicate paint brushes, dental tools and X-Acto knives. It’s typically hot, but a breeze could reach hilltops. That wind provided relief or, if robust enough, turned into a sandblaster. The audience out there consisted of beef cattle and the deer and coyotes roaming the scrubby terrain. Pleasantly, no rattle snakes came calling.
This year, enough of the hillside was peeled away to conclude a massive rock and dirt layers above the “bone zone” had to be removed if more of the T. rex was to be dislodged. That required permission of the federal government, which has jurisdiction at the KU site. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management offered to lend heavy equipment for the job.
“These lands are administered by Bureau of Land Management,” Burnham said. “They’re a great help in getting this work done.”
Within proximity of the T. rex, fossil fragments were scattered throughout the soft rock layers. Burnham was working on the edge of the dig site in June when he unearthed a front upper tooth to a T. rex. Rolling it over in his hand, he said: “That’s to our baby.”
KU student Niall Whalen, who grew up in Pennsylvania, found a dinosaur tooth and an abundance of fish scales that resembled small black seeds. Chunks of sandstone were split open to reveal imprints of leaves. Tree branches and grassy plants emerged from the ground — all of it tens of millions of years old.
“I was one of the dinosaur kids,” said Whalen, a reference to a youthful fascination with strange creatures that lived in what became North America.
Now an adult, he said, the experience of participating in a T. rex dig still held fascination. It could be the ultimate conversation starter, he said.
“Oh, yes. That’s one of the best parts,” he said. “Who never heard of a Tyrannosaurus rex?”
KU assistant fossil preparer Kyle Atkins-Weltman, a veteran of Hell Creek formation’s rocky expanse, discovered a Dakota raptor tooth this summer at the site. He anticipated the T. rex found by KU to stand as a 1-in-100-million-specimen based on degree of preservation and completeness.
“The allure is we’re getting to see a group of vertebrates who dominated the land for an inconceivable period of time. That’s 135 million years of being the dominant organism,” Atkins-Weltman said.
Others on the KU expedition — Broden Kaps, Bryce Kellig, Jackson Leibach and Jordan Van Sickler — had divergent backgrounds and different academic goals, but shared willingness in Montana to do unglamorous back-straining work necessary to carve into history. Most of the time when they turned over a section of dirt, it was just another handful to be tossed over the ledge. But mingled in there were new additions to KU’s museum collection. Big and small, the puzzle pieces mattered.
“Figuring out how prehistoric animals lived and died helps us understand what possibly could happen to us,” said Van Sickler, who is interested in earning a doctorate and building a career culminating in creation of a natural history museum in Arkansas.
It will take years for KU to wrap up the digging, clean the bones and prepare the T-Rex for display.
In the past, it was common for Montana ranchers in that region to follow the melt of winter snow with discovery of another huge bone poking out of a hillside. This part of the state has become a maze of private and government ownership, but local property owners have increasingly sought to earn an income from dinosaur bones as they’ve escalated in value.
Brit Murnion, proprietor of MT Mug Coffee Shop on Main Street in Jordan, said locals shared Garfield County with dinosaur diggers during the summer months and with hunters of antelope, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bison and other game from late summer into winter.
“We have a good time with the dinosaur diggers. They always have good stories to tell,” she said.
The only grocery store in Jordan offered change in golden dollar coins — perhaps because coins couldn’t be traced by the government in the way a dollar bill might. Jordan is part of Garfield County, a politically conservative county that voted 91.2 percent for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Sit down at the bar, and somebody might ask about your vote. Twenty years earlier, there was a memorable standoff on a Garfield County ranch between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the anti-government Montana Freemen.
Despite remoteness, the Montana landscape harbored an abundance of evidence to how the planet was shaped by forces difficult to imagine.
Along the dirt road taken in and out of KU’s dig site, Burnham stopped to point out a white line within the rock layers. It was a narrow band wedged between black sediment on the underside and brown sandy deposits on the upside.
He said the light-colored rock marked the moment 66.2 million years ago when an asteroid slammed into what was now called the Gulf of Mexico. The result was mass extinction of three-fourths of animal and plant species. The ash layer consisted partially of iridium — abundant in asteroids but rare in the earth’s crust.
“Everything above is the age of mammals,” he said. “Everything below is the age of dinosaurs.”