Treks for rex
BISMARCK — Paleontologists who recently found a tooth from a Tyrannosaurus rex south of Bismarck say the public might have similar luck in upcoming fossil digs.
The North Dakota Geological Survey is hosting four events this summer, inviting the public to help uncover bones from dinosaurs, prehistoric sea monsters and other creatures that once inhabited the state.
"The story of prehistoric life in North Dakota is a fascinating thing," said John Hoganson, the former state paleontologist. "It goes back millions of years."
Earlier this month, while preparing for an upcoming public dig south of Bismarck, paleontologists found the fractured core of a T. rex tooth, said Clint Boyd, senior paleontologist.
They then spent three to four hours collecting other bits of enamel from the 66-million-year-old fossil that will later be put together under a microscope. It's one of about a handful of T. rex teeth paleontologists have discovered in that area in recent years.
"It's always a thrill to find a T. rex fossil," Hoganson said. "We know it roamed right around Bismarck because we find these teeth just outside of town."
Though scientists have had good luck finding T. rex teeth, they have not yet uncovered a good skeleton of the dinosaur in North Dakota.
"T. rex shed their teeth very easily," said paleontologist Becky Barnes. "With T. rexes, you're going to find teeth a lot more easily than the rest of a skeleton."
The Pembina Gorge fossil site near Walhalla in northeast North Dakota offers people a chance to uncover swimming reptiles, such as the mosasaur that lived there 80 million years ago when North Dakota was covered by the Western Interior Seaway.
The next oldest site is the fossil dig south of Bismarck, which has fossils from the end of the age of dinosaurs.
"We're digging up 66-million-year-old dinosaurs, right before the dinosaurs go extinct," Boyd said.
At a site in Medora in southwest North Dakota, volunteers have uncovered fossils that are 60 million years old, the era right after dinosaurs went extinct when North Dakota was swampy and home to crocodiles.
"It's fun for me to pick up a fossil and realize no one has laid eyes on it in 60 million years," said paleontologist Jeff Person.
Near Dickinson, volunteers are looking for fossils that are more than 30 million years old, when the environment was dry and cooler. There, they are finding early mammals, including saber-toothed cats, rhinos, tortoises, tiny deer and horses.
"You can't walk around in those rocks without tripping over fossils," Boyd said of the Dickinson site. "They're everywhere."
The Geological Survey began inviting the public on fossil digs in 2000 as a way to promote tourism, Hoganson said. It's expanded to four or five events each summer, with 200 to 300 people participating each year. About half of the participants come from out of state.
"It's really turned out to be a really important program for the state," Hoganson said. "Lots of people come here from out of state that have never been here before."
The public digs have also benefited the state's research program. North Dakota has three full-time paleontologists, but the volunteer hours enhance the amount of work they can do and the number of sites they can explore, Boyd said.
Some of the finds from public digs, including an extinct rhino discovered by a 13-year-old on a family vacation, are on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center.
The events are June 26-30 in Dickinson, July 13-16 in Medora, July 24-28 in Bismarck and Aug. 8-12 in Pembina Gorge.
Most of the events are free with a $10 deposit required to reserve a spot. The Pembina Gorge dig, which includes catering, transportation and a souvenir, costs $89. Participants need to be 12 and older, or 10 and older on family days. Some of the events are full, but people can be placed on a waiting list.