Wednesday 8/10

What a nice day we had today; the weather was wonderful all day, we got started bright and early and we dug on the specimen at our new site. I may be getting over confident here, but I think it is a triceratops; the classic tri-horned herbivore of the Cretaceous era. They are not uncommon in the geologic formation (Hell Creek) we dig in here at the cattle ranch in Fallon County, Montana. It was just discovered yesterday so this is only the completion of our second day with this specimen. Too early to be making any big pronouncements, but I hope it is a lot of parts from one triceratops. We’re finding many scattered bones and fragments of bone as we dig one piece only to be interrupted by another. This is a really good problem to have! If this dig keeps going and produces many bones then I’ve decided to name the specimen Olivia, in honor of my daughter.

Here’s a view of the butte where we found “Olivia,” who is hopefully a triceratops and has many of her parts and pieces here to be found and excavated in the seasons to come.

We are wrapping up this field season on Friday, in two days, so not much will happen with this new find this year. We’ve carefully removed a few bones that were found on the “outskirts” of the main pieces. These were found in the typical way, while remove rock and soils away to find the outline of a bone you bump into other bones, and it continues. This is very typical; to find bones in a sort of jumble, crisscrossed over each other, touching each other, basically a mess to have to separate and get into their own field jackets of plaster soaked burlap without harming other bones. As the old expression goes, if it were easy, anyone could do it. Here’s a look at the set of bones we’re seeing so far. Note how hard it is to “see” the bones as they look so much like the rock matrix they are surrounded in.

Here I’ve circled some of the individual bones so you can kind of see their outline. As you can tell, it’s hard to distinguish the bone edge from the rock they are buried in. They are the surrounding rock, became fossilized by the minerals in the rock around them infiltrating every pore and over time mineralizing; rock taking the shape of what used to be bone. At the top of the photo it looks like there’s a scapula (shoulder blade), a couple of unknown bones, a humerus, then unknown, parts of a rib and at the very bottom an upside down vertebra that’s approximately 8” around at the big surface, the “drum” piece that’s called the centrum of the vertebra.
Bigger bone at the top of this photo looks to be a humerus, the upper arm bone in a triceratops and in you and me. There are two other pieces in this photo – not sure what they are just yet!

We also found some other interesting things at the dig today. Came across a lot of “coal” in dark, shiny pieces and some in slabs, several impressions of wood or plants (see photo below) and a couple of theropod teeth – you know, the ones with tiny serrations running along their longitudinal sides making them sharp, cutting devices. Very cool to find evidence of interaction between two animals, I can’t ID the teeth yet but will work on it back in the workshop at home.

Good sized wood impression in the rock next to a bone we’re trying to uncover. Unfortunately, this wood impression is paper thin and very difficult to preserve and a collect. There’s no fossil here, it’s just an impression left in the rock.
Here are the two teeth found today at the Olivia site. Zoom in and you can see the serrated edges especially on the tooth in the lower right of the photo.

Wrapped up working at this site around 6pm to head back to camp for a hot shower and good meal. Been a great second day on this dig and I’m truly excited about what may come from this in the future. Maybe especially so since we closed the Clarence dig site earlier this week, not to be returning there. So it continues. Our plan is to place a “winter cast” of burlap soaked in plaster over the entire area of exposed bones. This won’t be very thick and is meant to be temporary, just to protect and preserve the find until we return next year. After the plaster jacket dries we’ll place a tarp over the whole site and do the hardest thing imaginable- bury the bones with dirt! All done to protect the fossils from weather and from cows walking on them (cattle have zero respect for paleontology). Hard to bury the newly dug up bones but it’s the right thing to do when they must be left in place until next field season. Here’s how we left the site tonight; until we return in the morning.

A bit hard to make out, but that’s what makes finding a new specimen so special – how hard it is to find and to carefully expose. Can you spot bones amongst the surrounding matrix?