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In Search of Jurassic Ghosts


Dr. John Flaspohler, Immunologist, Biology Department – Summer 2019

The comforting sounds of tent zippers, sleepy morning voices and water boiling for coffee and oatmeal were the alarm clocks at camp.  Most of us likely would have found it more difficult to arise at 6:30 am on a frigid Moorhead morning in January, but this was June at a far flung campsite nestled into the Hell Creek Formation in north eastern Montana. The sun was already impressively high in the sky, and there were dinosaurs to be found. 

Our ‘Dino Dig’ crew included my 15 year-old daughter and her friend, both high schoolers, Dr. Ron Nellermoe, Concordia Biology Professor emeritus and Biologist in Residence, six hard working Concordia undergrads and two professional paleontologists, one of whom is a Concordia grad. The ‘dig’ has a long tradition at Concordia, having over decades mounted expeditions to South Dakota, Wyoming and now Montana in search of tangible Jurassic ghosts. Our days began with breakfast and assembling gear for the day. Backpacks heavy with not just the essential gear of paleontology; rock picks, tools for carefully excavating fossilized bone, compass, maps, GPS units, radios, and lunch but most importantly water. During the day summer heat reached into the 80s but one could easily find themselves hiking rough terrain for hours with temperatures in the 90s and no shade to be found. 

Excavating and plastering a Triceratops scapula in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana

A brief four days with the crew found me excavating the likely still articulated tail vertebra of a duck-billed Hadrosaur that had been found a few days prior, as well as helping to excavate, ‘pedestal’, plaster and remove an impressively large and well-preserved scapula from a Triceratops (photo).

As a novice paleontologist, I quickly learned what it’s like to be on the low end of a steep learning curve.  I heard ‘slow down, don’t dig so fast’ more than once, and, after rather sheepishly asking ‘Is this a bone?’ was mostly told it was not.   

Nevertheless, I found prospecting to be the most enjoyable assignment. The thrill of walking on ground that clearly contained numerous dinosaur fossils (others were certainly finding them!), scanning for the sometimes obvious but other times subtle hints of the lives lived by these now familiar but still mysterious animals. 

Tyranosaurs are likely the most famous to be found in these formations but a complete thriving ecosystem of herbivores such as Triceratops and Hadrosaurs as well as more well-known carnivores inhabited the shores of this great inland sea 66 million years ago.  The abundant petrified wood, fossilized fish and microfossils of many diverse organisms attest to the abundant life that once flourished here. 

The first bones I found will be etched in my memory for years, just a few broken pieces, perhaps a rib, complete with marrow within.  They were small and did not seem to be associated with larger more complete bones eroding out of the hillside. So scientifically a dead end.  In my mind, however, they represented the culmination of a search that had its origins in a child’s mind; consumed with all there was to know about dinosaurs, never dreaming that one day might afford the chance be the first human eyes to gaze upon the remains of this particular individual.

I recall a dinosaur obsessive phase between the ages of 6 and 8, reading all I could about the creatures.  My children had their own dinosaur phase at about the same ages.  Aside from the pages of a book, dinosaurs only appeared to reside on display at natural history museums. Though I might find an occasional fossilized snail or coral, I never imagined I would one day have the opportunity to find my own evidence that dinosaurs once inhabited this land. While working in the field it’s easy to let your mind wander to what these lands must have looked like all those millions of years ago.  It seems in many ways like a different planet, unconnected to the earth’s current biosphere. Though with the occasional flutter of a sparrow or magpie or streamlined arc of a kestrel across the hot Montana sky it is comforting to realize these ancient creatures are still with us, and always have been.  We just call them birds now.