This year our Montana expedition could be classified as a grab and dash operation. Having discovered a what appeared to be a Triceratopsprorsus skull in 2016, and explored with a few test pits in 2017, we returned this year with permit in hand to determine just how good the Triceratops site is. Turns out the skull is every paleontologists dream, it appears to be a complete skull nose to frill with no pre- or post burial damage to speak of and potentially some distortion on one side.
Since only a tiny portion of the total skull had been exposed on the surface when I stumbled upon it two summers ago (just 3” of frill margin exposed, the very edge!) and the rest of the skull was completely buried beneath sediment, the entire specimen was completely undamaged by modern erosion. Moreover, the skull is entombed in sandstone, which preserves fossils in three dimensions, so there is less distortion than one would find in a fossil preserved in mudstone. Our number one goal this trip is simple, quarry clean and quickly, and get this beauty packaged up for transport via helicopter in just ten days’ time. Two days of driving and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences will have its first Triceratops skull for exhibition and study.
We started day 1 by opening a quarry, digging through the overburden down to the bone layer–a full day of picking and shoveling. As we dug down through the layers, we noticed a slick-n-side revealing itself, a smooth sloping surface cutting directly through the middle of our quarry near the edge of the skull. It kept growing, eventually becoming over a meter in height and we then determined it was a fault and that the sediment layers entombing the Triceratops skull had dropped about a meter relative to the bone layers behind. This was great news as it meant to reach the rest of the bone layer we didn’t have to dig all the way down to the level of the skull, and that if present, the bones at the back of the quarry would be a meter higher up.
Just as we were trenching around the backside of the skull, we uncovered a gorgeous quadrate (bone from the back of the skull connecting the skull to the lower jaw). Of course, it was resting directly in our trench (the most common law of quarrying). Nonetheless, it is a real beauty with perfect undamaged margins of fine, thin bone. This is truly a gorgeous specimen.
With time on our prospecting trip running out, we hit the hills early yesterday. The ridge we hiked down had some great exposure and the area turned out to be littered with fossil bone. Around every corner we found piles of Triceratops bone many of which had just been resting on the surface degrading for a long time. Sometimes I’d stumble across a nice bone on the surface, but a little digging into the hill revealed it was just a lone bone, resting out in the Montana sunlight.
Early in the morning I spotted a foot long thin ridge of bone protruding from a hillside well below where I was hiking. I made my way down to check it out and noticed the distinctive triangular bones on the margin of a frill just peeking out. Holding my breath a bit, I started peeling sediment off the bone, which continued improving in condition deeper into the hill. It was a good sign! Clearly there was a large portion of the frill diving into the overburden here. Since we only have a prospecting permit, and could never take out a whole Triceratops skull without an excavation permit, I chose to stop digging there, consolidate and cap what was exposed. It could be that this piece of frill is not attached to anything at all. OR it could be that the entire skull is waiting just beneath the mudstone layers of that hillside. We’ll only find out when we come back to excavate what we’ve found.
More hiking brought more sites, including these huge eroding bones on the top of a butte that could be spotted from 100 meters away. There were at least five bones exposed here and this is a site that will merit further excavating.
At then end of the ridge there were some beautiful views including a broken down cabin in the valley. But alas, this is clearly then end of this hike, time to head back to the hills behind to search for more bone.
Our second day of prospecting was spectacular as we hiked amongst a rainbow of wildflowers. There was no shortage of bone either. We spent a couple of hours collecting from a micro site (a sediment layer loaded with tiny bones and teeth). Here we collected fossils of many different species including croc osteoderms and teeth, different turtles, gar scales, and meat and plant eating dinosaurs.
Later we hiked further into the badlands and found several promising sites including at least two horned dinosaur localities, a possible theropod site, and tons of other sites we didn’t have enough time to dig into.
At the end of the day we made some friends including this awesome salamander!
It was a hot one yesterday and looks to be even hotter today! Still waiting for something special to turn up at the surface but who knows what’s hiding just under the surface at he sites we already found.
After two weeks of prospecting and finding only a handful of localities in New Mexico, it was a joy to spend a day poking around the bountiful Hell Creek. Of course in New Mexico anything we found was likely to be new, here in the Hell Creek much more of the ancient fauna is already described.
Mary Schweitzer and I found bone within the first half hour and by the end of the day had run across bone at almost ever turn. I spent the morning checking out a fair weather turtle.
The afternoon we dug on a duckbill dinosaur site that Mary found with good success. I hauled a vert up the hill, but with only a surface permit, the rest will have to wait!