Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.
-Immanuel Kant, philosopher (1724-1804)
It takes an experienced eye to look at loose dirt and quickly ascertain what is rock and what is bone. dinosaur with 500 teeth Just ask paleontologist Jerry Jacene of Red Feather Fossil Excavations, Glendive, Montana.
“This is hands on history,” explains Jacene. A field director with more than 20 years in paleontology, Jacene has traveled, excavated and documented historical finds in Tennessee, Wyoming, Montana and China, just to name a few places.
A dirt, rocky road will take you back, literally, 12 miles to Makoshika Breaks (aka Camp Rex) and back in time to when cretaceous mammals roamed the Badlands of Montana when it was oceanfront property. Makoshika is fifty square miles of buttes (sandstone), rolling prairies, a few pine trees, and is also a working ranch.
When our group first met Jerry, he showed us several fossils (bones, teeth, eggs and claws) he collected just for our benefit. The first “clue” he explained to us was that bone is porous, so if you lick it, it should stick to your tongue.
This area, known as the Badlands, used to look like the Everglades, according to Jerry, resident paleontologist.
Our camp consisted of a few cabins, a large tepee, and a modern single-story building which housed the kitchen, dining room and gathering place, with two bathrooms and two showers. In an emergency there was always the outhouse, (handicap accessible, but not the buttes). It was here that co-owner Lois prepared 1,500 meals in one day for television crews and ranchers when the Discovery Channel came out to make a documentary about the History of Tyrannosaurus Rex (T-Rex).
The rustic cabins are bunk style and minimal electricity. You wont need an alarm clock because daybreak comes around 4 am, and it doesn’t get dark until around 10 pm. In case you forgot yours, there are sample packs of Advil and lip balm, compliments of the owners, in the cabins and in the restrooms.
In addition to daily digs, visitors can learn about branding, round-ups (even participate in their twice yearly event) and horseback ride. Approximately 500 head of cattle are on the property and 100 horses, most of them wild. Evenings are best enjoyed sitting around the campfire sharing cowboy stories and singing familiar songs.
Our dig begins the next morning after a quick breakfast, buffet style. We load up on Jerry’s pick up truck to cover some ground faster. We pass through several barbed wire fences, which have to be opened and closed by hand to prevent cattle from roaming too far. During the summer some cows will find their way into the buttes, along dangerous dry, remote areas where they are prey for coyotes and other wild animals. Donning hats, sunscreen and carrying bottled water, we make our way through cathedral buttes, and rock formations holding treasures of history. Amateurs and volunteers (students to adults) play a major role in discovering, digging and cleaning dinosaur bones and other fossils.
“The most interesting and historical finds are not the big ones, like T-Rex or Triceratops,” said Jacene. “It’s the small finds that are the most significant. The trace fossils tell us so much more, like the environment, what they ate; the ecosystem. And how they interacted with each other.”
Trace fossils – footprints, mineralized feces, stomach stones-gastroliths, and impressions left by skin or feathers.
In North Dakota tracks, similar to that of an alligator, possibly 90′ in length have been found. They are ripple marks, 2 1’2″ apart and tracks from a rigid tail, 1 ¼” apart. According to Jerry, no one has seen anything like this. They don’t know what kind of animal it is.
The most common finds in this area right now are turtle shells. These are easily detected because of the pattern on the shells, this tells us there must have been water nearby. You can also find small mammals in ant hills. Ants move the earth, putting sand and dirt on top of the bones, helping preserve them.
Jerry knows the terrain in the immediate area better than nearby roads. As we hike he points out where certain bones have been found and how.
“With a pair of 10×50 binoculars, I was able to see a (large) piece of bone protruding from a rock formation,” said Jerry. He points out the various layers, bands in the buttes. “You want to look in the dark bands,” he further explained. The layers are ironstone and bentanite. Larger bones that may be protruding are due to the erosion from weather.
The excavation of one butte has brought out an arctic crocodile and a mammal bone, possibly a leg bone from a Chasmosaurus. And in another layer, Lemur teeth have been found. Oftentimes, in order to move fragile bones and preventing any further destruction, fossils are encased in a plaster jacket to preserve and relocate them.
About 16 miles away from camp is a new excavation site with the possible skull and bones of Triceratops coming out of a butte.
Inside these buttes are remains from Hadrosaurs, Chasmosaurus, and raptors.
Jerry, like all other paleontologists and students, carry a tool kit with them and a journal for taking their field notes. In this journal they will write down the location, sometimes drawings a grid, as well as the bones themselves. Depending on where fossils are found, top, middle or lower portion of rock formations, can also help determine whether or not other bones may still be there to excavate, and if there may have been water there and other dinosaurs, or a nesting area.
Bones found near the bottom usually mean most of the body of a dinosaur is not still there. These are fragments that have been eroded from the rocks and buttes over thousands, millions of years.
While hiking through dry creeks, down rocky terrain, and up steep rock formations, we occasionally stop to look at fragments of turtle, and other dinosaurs from the cretaceous period. Jerry points out where T-Rex was found, and a hadrosaurus, and a bone that would be good practice for students to work on gridding, based on how it’s resting in the dirt and the deterioration. Sometimes he will have students map the bone, by the area, and then rebuild it back at the lab or in a classroom.
Students, parents, kids of all ages can come out to look, learn, possibly earn a badge and take home part of history.
Many of the bones from this area have been shipped to museums around the country. Local residents, businesses and paleontologists are working to keep recent, new and future findings in Montana.
Jerry is also very active in helping shape the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum in Glendive. At the museum parents, kids and visitors can see, touch and learn dinosaurs through hands-on exhibits and displays. Currently under construction, the first (lower level) floor will showcase a Dino Walk, showing through models and exhibits the Triassic through the Cretaceous periods. A real working lab is located on the main level where student technicians and Jerry will work on restorations of both real and model bones for exhibit. The third floor will offer hands-on exhibits for kids and adults. All exhibits are not static or museum like. These exhibits use real bones, and the dioramas depict natural habitats of dinosaurs and their prey as best as they can based on actual findings. On display is a life-size Velociraptor, which was found in Mongolia. One wall is encased with actual bones, no model or clay replicas are housed in this section.