FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
THE FOSSIL TRAIL
Sidebar: New center lands big grant
WOMEN OF SCIENCE
SCIENTIST Q & A
Cover: UM paleontologist George Stanley holds a rhinoceros jaw fossil in the storage room of the University’s paleontology research collection. Found in Montana, the fossil is from the Miocene epoch, which extended from 23 million to 5.3 million years before the present.
Vision is published annually by University Relations and the UM Office of the Vice President for Research and Development. It is printed by UM Printing & Graphic Services.
PUBLISHER: Daniel J. Dwyer. MANAGING EDITOR AND GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Cary Shimek. PHOTOGRAPHER: Todd Goodrich. CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Brianne Burrowes, Alex Strickland, Judy Fredenberg, Erik Leithe, Rita Munzenrider and Patia Stephens. WEB DESIGN: Patia Stephens. EDITORIAL OFFICE: University Relations, Brantly Hall 330, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-5914. MANAGEMENT: Judy Fredenberg, Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, 116 Main Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-6670.
the Fossil Trail
University launches new Paleontology Center
By Cary Shimek
Leathery old cowboy Duane Sibley never much believed in dinosaurs.
Oh, he heard of university types showing up from time to time to cart away dusty bones and rocks, but he didn’t pay it much mind. Instead he cowboyed all across his corner of Eastern Montana, working hard on ranches lost in an immensity of sagebrush and badlands.
Then one sunny day in 1997 — long after his stint in Vietnam and years of running cattle on his own spread — Duane got a call from Larry Mires, the shop teacher in Glasgow. Larry says a ranch family with a rough reputation in those parts was in a standoff with law enforcement over some bones.
Debt had forced the family to cede some of their rangeland to the feds, but when a skeleton of some ancient monster was found there, they thought they still had a claim.
Since Duane knew the family, would he talk to them?
Duane drove 20 miles south of Fort Peck and was stunned to see a long line of law enforcement vehicles extending off the highway to a butte about a quarter mile away. The sheriff’s department, U.S. Marshals Service and FBI were all there, rifles at the ready. They faced off against two local men slouched near their pickups, sporting firearms of their own.
Duane worked his way to the officials in charge and asked to speak with the locals.
“You can’t do that; somebody will shoot you,” they said. Duane responded: “I think if you don’t let me through, somebody is going to get shot.”
They finally let him approach the two young men alone, his hands raised slightly to show he meant no harm. Duane felt nervous and jumpy — like he was back in Vietnam. When he got close, he whispered, “Holy hell, this is going to come into you guys. You need to get out of here.”
Since everyone knows Duane in those parts, they listened to him, got into their trucks and disappeared into the badlands. Law enforcement let them go. Later, Duane and a small group ascended the grassy hill to see what all the fuss was about.
Near the top was a shallow hole. Sticking out the bottom was the lower jaw of something gigantic — something with 6-inch daggers for teeth.
And Duane believed.
University of Montana paleontologist George Stanley always believed in dinosaurs and other long-extinct life. In fact, in the 1980s his quest for fossils led him to Peru’s Andes Mountains, where plate tectonics had thrust the remains of ancient coral reefs and marine creatures to the top of the world eons ago.
George was based in Cerro de Pasco, at 14,000 feet the highest mining city in the world. One dark night he and his assistant couldn’t find their hotel, so they decided to seek out the police station and ask directions.
Driving toward the station at 10 p.m., they came to a barricade across the road. Since nobody was around, they drove the Jeep around the barrier.
Spotlights engulfed them, and suddenly they were surrounded by five or six young men yelling and waving automatic weapons. Some looked only 16, and they shook with adrenaline as they aimed their machine guns.
George’s assistant babbled in Spanish: “We’re foreigners and Americans, and we made a mistake. We are tourists; we are lost and need directions.”
After some tense moments the young men relaxed. It turned out they guarded the police station, and it is a favorite tactic of communist Shining Path terrorists to use vehicles loaded with explosives to blow up buildings. So George must never park his car near a police station or come near a police station!
The UM paleontologist and his assistant were allowed to turn and slowly drive away, and George lived to hunt fossils another day.
These days George Stanley and Duane Sibley have more in common than armed standoffs in the vicinity of fossils.
Last year the Montana Board of Regents approved formation of a new UM Paleontology Center. Directed by Stanley, the new center collects, conserves, researches and educates about fossils — especially those of prehistoric Montana.
The center also established a field station partnership with Fort Peck Paleontology Inc., a private nonprofit organization formed by Eastern Montana residents. FPPI finds, excavates, prepares, molds and casts dinosaurs and other creatures from the area’s fossil-rich landscape. And Sibley, the old cowboy who didn’t believe in dinosaurs, directed the group for several years.
Stanley says the partnership will provide a summer base for UM students sent to explore and learn in the Fort Peck area — one of the best fossil-hunting grounds on Earth. It’s a place where the lost world of tyrannosaurs, triceratops and giant swimming mosasaurs slowly rises to the surface to weather away amid scenic badlands and trampling cattle hooves.
“It will be very important for education,” Stanley says of the field station. “We will have students there, and I can see us hosting workshops and having specialists coming in for meetings to talk about paleontology.”
Stanley is an invertebrate paleontologist who specializes in modern and ancient coral reefs — especially those of the Triassic Period of more than 200 million years ago. Since ancient reefs became today’s oil reservoirs, resource companies often hire people with Stanley’s expertise to help make new finds.
He was lured from the Smithsonian Institution to UM in 1982. Back then the University employed Bill Melton, a fish specialist, who also was curator for UM’s extensive paleontology research collection. Melton retired in 1989, and Stanley took over administration of the collection, though he longs for the day when the University funds a new faculty curator. Concerned student volunteers have helped Stanley maintain the collection since then.
Stanley says the collection is one of UM’s hidden crown jewels. Largely housed in 1,500 square feet in the basement of the Clapp Building, it contains more than 100,000 vertebrate, invertebrate and plant fossils housed in wooden cabinets and metal specimen storage cases.
It’s by far the oldest paleontology research collection in Montana. Founded in 1898, it formed the basis for UM’s first master’s thesis — a work about vertebrate paleontology. Since then the collection has been the foundation for more than 350 published papers and theses about fossils.
Stanley says the collection is a research museum. Though it isn’t open to the general public without an appointment, up to 1,000 K-12 students tour the storage facility each year and researchers from across the globe visit to examine, study and sometimes borrow the fossils, which often results in more published papers crediting UM. So the research museum serves as a fossil library of sorts for scientists.
Stanley says there are hundreds of research museums scattered throughout the country, “and some are tucked away in little grassroots universities in the middle of the Rocky Mountains like us. People come here from all over to study — Sweden and Denmark — and we just had somebody from England.”
Though it’s a hidden treasure, Stanley worries the paleontology collection might wither and die — an underused relic in UM’s Department of Geosciences.
“Even some professional colleagues say it’s old-fashioned and out of date — just a dusty bunch of old cabinets,” he says. “But, wow, that’s like saying we don’t need books anymore. And it’s the collected knowledge of the last century.”
So the chief reason he started the new UM Paleontology Center was to provide more standing and legitimacy for the research museum.
“It’s going to help us get grants,” Stanley says, “and it’s going to help in many aspects of research. We are a bona fide organization now. And that’s good news because we are the custodians of the diversity of this great fossil record.”
Within the research museum are nine featured collections. Just one, the Stanley Collection, includes fossils from alpine Europe and creatures such as sponges, corals and mollusks from western North America and Canada (including Alaska). It also contains Triassic invertebrates from the Peruvian Andes and central Europe. Other featured collections — a small part of UM’s total holdings — contain 500-million-year-old soft-bodied marine animals frozen in stone, as well as amphibians, reptiles, mammals, trilobites and much more.
Though most of the research museum is tucked away in drawers, UM does manage to display about 1 percent of its holdings on the first and third floors of the Clapp Building. There people can peruse a saber-toothed tiger skeleton, the lower jaw and scoop-like tusks of a mastodon, and a massive T. rex skull. Displays on the first floor have names such as “Maiasaura: The Good Mother” and “A Spectacular Example of Fossil Preservation.”
Though Stanley can only dream of a museum building for the collection, he admits, “I could fill it up.”
With the new Paleontology Center designation, Stanley plans to digitize more of the collection and place it online for researchers worldwide, creating “a museum without walls.” He says it might take an army of students, but it’s necessary. As it is, the 100,000 specimens suspected to be in the collection is a rough estimate. There might be many more, including lost discoveries waiting to be found again.
“There’s two ways you can do research,” he says. “You can get in a Jeep and go into the backcountry and find fabulous fossils. But another way is to go into the museums. I had a professor who said if we made a law forbidding fossil collecting for 20 years, we would still have plenty of work in the museums. Because we are collecting much more than we are studying.”
Information about the research collection, including photos of many specimens, is online. Stanley says a staff member soon will be hired to manage the collections.
Besides space for the research museum, the new Paleontology Center includes a fossil preparation lab and an adjacent acid lab, which uses huge drums of hydrochloric acid to dissolve away the limestone encasing fossils. Stanley says the acid lab is unique to Montana, and he built it using the same National Science Foundation grant that funded three years of work in Peru during the 1980s. Despite having to avoid Shining Path guerrillas, Stanley returned to Montana from South America with literally a ton of specimens to study.
The center also includes a curator’s office and a computer room that maintains the growing Paleontology Center database.
Stanley says a major goal of the center is to collect, conserve and teach about fossils, as well as conduct research on them. It also promotes professional and amateur interest in paleontology, supports collection-based research and trains students.
He says getting geology students working in the field is vitally important to their education. Along that vein, for the past 20 years UM has held a six-week field camp at UM-Western in Dillon, where students bound for graduate school venture into the field to map rocks, find fossils and apply what they have learned. And now the new partnership with Fort Peck Paleontology Inc. in Eastern Montana will offer another venue for students to test their skills.
Twenty miles south of Fort Peck at the end of August, two representatives of FPPI take a UM writer and a photographer into the field. The air smells like burnt hay after the first rain in a month, and the gray badlands clay — gumbo — is dry on top and slick as snot underneath.
The famed Hell Creek Formation is all around, revealed in colorful multilayered buttes. Sixty-five million years ago this spot was lush jungle near the equator on the edge of a vast inland sea — a place where the ground shook as leviathans hunted one another. Today it’s home to antelope, dry-wash gullies and staring cattle. Yet someone with the right knowledge might spot the K/T boundary in the hills — a dark-gray, inch-thick layer of iridium believed to have been deposited by the meteorite that snuffed the dinosaurs. Above that boundary their remains are never found.
Below that point, however, they are underfoot and everywhere.
“Pretty soon your eyes just pick them up,” says Duane Sibley, who wears a U.S. Marines cap today instead of his trademark cowboy hat. “Doing this gets you a permanently bowed neck from looking down. But my dream is to find a whole new dinosaur sometime. It’s got to be there!”
His companion is Tom Seever, a wisecracking retired Delta Airlines pilot who spends his winters leading fishing charters in Key Largo, Fla., and his summers guiding people into the Montana badlands to hunt fossils.
With a little instruction from Sibley and Seever, we quickly realize that up to half of what we thought were rocks at the base of the butte are actually fossilized bone fragments. They are everywhere — it’s a prehistoric graveyard — and we begin to step carefully.
Seever comments that 99 percent of the fossils he sees are “chunkasaurus” or “TTBs” — Terribly Tumbled Bones. The tiny fragments might reveal what species they were, but little else. The rare and truly amazing finds are intact “articulated” skeletons the eons have left whole.
The landscape is erosive and changeable, so you can return to an area devoid of fossils in the spring or after a good rain, and something new might be revealed. In a wistful voice, Seever says most fossils — assuredly many new to science — erode to the surface and then weather away without ever being found.
We follow the cowboy and retired pilot as they peer under sagebrush and into the creases of hills. This fossil-hunting is an exciting, addictive business. Who knows what discoveries await beyond the next ridge?
After only an hour we find a crocodile tooth, the serrated point of a Tyrannosaurus fang and a softball-sized vertebra of a Triceratops. The stuff is everywhere out here. It’s a paleontology wonderland.
For more than a century, people in Eastern Montana watched as researchers from other parts of the country arrived to dig holes and cart away fossils by the wagonload and then truckload. Vast dinosaur skeletons rose in eastern museums — with many of the most impressive hailing from Big Sky Country. Finally in 1997 one of the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever found was uncovered south of Fort Peck. Locals dubbed it “Peck’s Rex,” and they decided to keep it.
Like many valuable dinosaurs found in the West, Peck’s Rex didn’t have an easy time being reborn into the world. A local ranch family almost shot it out with authorities over the remains, and at one point the ranchers excavated part of the skeleton on federal land with heavy equipment, crushing a portion of the skull. Government agents eventually tracked down and returned the fossils before they were sold to the highest bidder.
Notre Dame paleontologist Keith Rigby Jr. and his students spearheaded excavation of the tyrannosaur in 1997, and Eastern Montana residents banded together to form Fort Peck Paleontology Inc. to administer the remains. A nine-member board was created to operate FPPI, among them Sibley, shop teacher Larry Mires and physician David Gregory — a big, growly fellow who helped raise more than $500,000 from local donors and fundraisers to support excavation and preservation of Peck’s Rex.
John Rabenberg, FPPI board president, says forming the organization represented a seismic shift in thinking for many area residents.
“I know I never really cared about the fossils,” said Rabenberg, who has farmed the area since 1957. “I would just kick them aside or throw them in a rock pile. My neighbor had a whole spinal column as long as my cupboard lying by his doorstep. He also had tusks and such. But they all deteriorated after a while because they just sat by the door.”
Saving the fossils for science and education is always a race against time. As an example, Rabenberg points out a massive tyrannosaur thighbone on his land that has weathered into a crumbled brown stain.
So what do you do with a prime T. rex skeleton? The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed FPPI to take over a big metal building that was a laundry facility during the 1933-40 construction of Fort Peck Dam. There the fossils were prepped, and molds were manufactured to create duplicates of Peck’s Rex. Eventually the building would transform into the paleontology field station UM chose to partner with.
The discovery of Peck’s Rex spurred efforts to create a Fort Peck Interpretive Center to lure tourists to the area. Besides displaying replicas of area dinosaurs and other fossils, it would showcase the history of Fort Peck Dam, pioneer life and area wildlife.
The partners in the effort would be FPPI, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Montana’s U.S congressional delegation helped land $6.7 million for the new 18,000-square-foot interpretive center at the base of Fort Peck’s gigantic earth dam. Groundbreaking was in August 2001, and the museum opened its doors in spring 2004.
To find a small, world-class museum like the Fort Peck Interpretive Center in a remote corner of Eastern Montana is a little disconcerting. And it’s almost alarming when visitors are greeted by a life-size roaring replica of Peck’s Rex just inside the center doors. FPPI donated the statue to the center after an artist created it using Peck’s Rex fossil measurements.
Director Michele Fromdahl says the donation was worth more than $100,000,
and that doesn’t include a replica skeleton of Peck’s Rex
in the next room. (The original Peck’s Rex bones are housed at the
FPPI field station.) The museum also contains more fossil skeletons, wildlife
displays, the façade of a pioneer town and two immense fish tanks
— the largest in Montana — where Missouri River and Fort Peck
species hover and glide.
“People can’t believe this museum is here — we get that comment a lot,” Fromdahl says. “When you walk in, you don’t feel like you are in Northeastern Montana.”
As someone constantly working to expand exhibits, Fromdahl is open to the possibility of displaying part of UM’s paleontology research collection at the center. She says Stanley and his students also could help craft exhibits, especially in regards to sea creatures of the Cretaceous. Because the Fort Peck area is renowned not only for the massive land creatures found in the Hell Creek Formation; it also has lots of Bear Paw Shale — a stratum rich in marine fossils from when that part of Montana was an inland sea. Mosasaurs from that time could reach 60 feet, with gigantic jaws as scary as anything on land.
Stanley loves the idea of working with the Corps of Engineers to create exhibits. “They have some money available to help us, and they could be our venue,” he says. “I’ve also talked with (Fromdahl) about getting UM students working at that museum. It could be a great partnership.”
It’s a partnership that could grow since Fromdahl hopes the one-building interpretive center may someday become an interpretive complex. In that scenario, Montana fossils might end up with their own building and many more exhibits would be required.
“It all depends on federal funding,” she says.
The Fort Peck Field Station of Paleontology is a wild place. Just inside the door of the former laundry facility, a half-assembled Peck’s Rex skeleton hangs from the ceiling. Crafted of light high-density foam, the massive beast will weigh only about 500 pounds when completed.
Fossils and their replicas abound, and the actual Peck’s Rex fossils are stored on shelves in a locked storeroom. The bone factory — the huge room where multicolored fluids are poured into huge molds to make tyrannosaur replicas — resembles the set of a horror film, with gory gobs of goo on the floor and resin spills like cave formations. Somehow this chaos all comes together to make dinosaurs.
FPPI spent a year and a half and about $200,000 creating the Peck’s Rex molds, and now they can be used to make a complete T. rex in a month. The one they worked on in August sold for $100,000 to a buyer in Brazil.
FPPI workers say the replicas sell to museums, interpretive centers and private collections. Believe it or not, there are private people who want a full T. rex skeleton in their homes.
The casting program is the primary way FPPI supports itself, and the Internet is the organization’s chief marketing tool. Its first Rex replica was donated to the Fort Peck Interpretive Center, but then one sold to a Maryland buyer for $130,000. Competition later forced FPPI to drop its price.
The casting program is hit-and-miss. In ’04 the group raised $300,000, but then only about $10,000 in ’05.
FPPI has worked to diversify its catalog. A lot of times workers replicate small parts, such as teeth and claws. They also market replicas of a cave bear, marine fossils and dinosaur eggs in addition to Peck’s Rex. They also sell recreations of the most complete skeleton ever found of a Struthiomimus — a toothless, meat-eating, ostrich-like dinosaur. One worker spent six months meticulously blasting the delicate find with baking soda to remove the matrix around the bones. Then he reassembled the fossils into the position they were found in and made a mold of the entire thing.
Besides casting and molding fossils, FPPI does education and outreach. To aid this effort, staff members created a traveling Peck’s Rex exhibit that can be taken apart to fit through a standard door.
Nobody had ever done that before. Workers can set it up and take it down in an hour. A similar exhibit with Sue (the largest T. rex ever found) takes hours and about 10 people to set up. FPPI had its mobile Rex at the Billings Science Expo this summer, and workers say it can pretty much go anywhere.
FPPI also is working to expand its field program, in which volunteers pay to help on dinosaur digs. The organization offers day digs for $90, and it plans to offer $1,000 weeklong excavations soon.
Some people who visit the field station already volunteer their services. Jerry and Joe Wilson, a Washington state couple, parked their RV outside the station in August and spent days filling in the cracks in Maiasaur fossils. Joe, the wife, also helped lead tours of the facility.
just had a blast,” she says. “We never thought we’d
do anything like this.”
With educational support from UM, FPPI board members hope to create a full-fledged field station that digs fossils, preps them and does research.
Seever says, “FPPI is trying to get a sense of what (it wants) to do instead of just dismantling everything that has been accomplished and letting it go to waste.”
If you want to annoy certain paleontologists, start yakking endlessly about how great dinosaurs are and about how they are the most interesting thing in the fossil record. As a paleontologist specializing in coral reefs and invertebrate fossils, Stanley admits dinosaurs are not his main interest.
“Dinosaurs are just one twig on the immense tree of life,” he says. “They may be the most sensational, but the public has a one-track mind about dinosaurs and paleontology. It’s almost a kid’s thing. All these big monsters … some were only the size of chickens!”
In his “History of Life” class, dinosaurs are discussed late in the semester, and humans only warrant mention in the last lecture. “If we took the whole history of life and put it on a 24-hour clock, Cretaceous dinosaurs lived around 11:30 p.m. and humans make a cameo appearance 20 seconds before midnight,” he says.
While Fort Peck and its field station are surrounded by spectacular fossils from the Cretaceous Period, every place on Earth has fossils — even Missoula. It’s just that the Garden City is built on incredibly ancient Precambrian rock from almost a billion years ago, so the primitive one-celled fossils from that time can only be seen with a high-powered microscope.
While UM has formed a partnership with FPPI in the heart of dinosaur country, Stanley has no plans to launch dinosaur research projects in that area. He says Montana’s only other full-time paleontologist, Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman — a consultant for the popular “Jurassic Park” movies — already has that research arena well covered.
“I see our relationship with (FPPI) as more educational,” Stanley says. “We will have a teaching station out there. We will have interns working for them, and credit hours will be generated. We will have students out there learning the techniques of collecting, GIS work and preparation. We will be available to help FPPI with our expertise, and there are some grants in the mill right now that could bring them funding. We are their partners, and not the only ones.”
And the main thing: “The UM Paleontology Center will be taking a broader snapshot of life and studying more than dinosaurs,” Stanley says. “The state needs it.”
Stanley says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a new building in Fort Peck and has offered to make meeting rooms available as classrooms for UM students, who likely will live in tents while working at the field station next summer. However, UM is trying to purchase a building in Fort Peck for housing and to give the University a permanent presence in the small community. In fact, if other departments such as anthropology, history and geography get involved, he says a mini-UM campus is not out of the question “because there’s an amazing natural lab out there — and much more to study than just fossils.”
Bringing in students and researchers while assisting FPPI and the interpretive center also could help energize the economy in that part of Montana, Stanley says, perhaps even generating 20 to 30 jobs with decent wages for the area. A robust field station also could bring in more tourists.
Jon “Tony” Rudbach is UM’s associate vice president for research and economic development. He has worked with Great Northern Development Corp. in Wolf Point to land a $90,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to assist FPPI. During the next year, the money will be used to revamp the organization’s accounting system and generate business and marketing plans. A secretary and full-time business manager also will be recruited.
He says UM’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Development already has supported the Paleontology Center with $100,000. Half of that went toward Stanley’s start-up costs, and the other $50,000 will create an electronic paleontology database that could help FPPI.
Stanley says fossil hunters in the Fort Peck area deal with a bewildering tangle of federal, state and private jurisdictions, with different rules in the areas for collecting and access. So a mapping project he launched with Roly Redmond, director of UM’s Wildlife Spatial Analysis Lab, may unravel those difficulties.
The database has gathered together detailed information on Eastern Montana land ownership, topography, transportation, surface vegetation and more. So in one example, if you want to find all the Bureau of Land Management lands in the Hell Creek Formation with easy access to roads, that information is a few keystrokes away.
Ute Langner, a GIS specialist working on the project, says the database should be completed within a year. Perhaps then a map showing where the best fossils have been found can help pinpoint other areas of high probability to help FPPI make even more amazing finds.
“There are so many applications; they are only limited by your imagination,” Langner says.
Security officers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport thought George Stanley might be a terrorist.
“What is this?” one of them demanded, pointing to a knife-like shape in the scientist’s carry-on bag. The tan object looked wicked — 6 inches long with serrated edges tapering to a point.
Stanley explained it was a T. rex tooth. He was traveling to Washington, D.C., to speak at the Smithsonian and visit contacts on Capitol Hill. He was going to use the tooth as a prop, and since it cost thousands of dollars, he didn’t want to check it. And, no, he wouldn’t throw the rare fossil away.
After some haggling, Homeland Security determined the paleontologist wasn’t a threat, and Stanley was released to hunt fossils another day.
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