Since I was a small boy dinosaurs have captivated me. Dinosaurs were not as popular then. My first hero was not a ballplayer or rock star but a paleontologist. Roy Chapman Andrews, former director of the American Museum of Natural History and fellow Explorers Club member, was the first to find dinosaur eggs in Mongolia in 1922. He was the model for Indiana Jones, complete with big hat and large pistols, fighting off Chinese bandits. Still a small boy at heart, it was with great excitement that I recently made a site visit to the Jurassic dig sites of the Judith River Dinosaur Institute (JRDI) about 3 hours outside Billings, Montana. JRDI was a great potential site to send Eagle Scouts in the National Eagle Scout Association (NESA) World Explorer program which I have developed and lead. I was there to check out logistics and safety, a prerequisite before looking parents in the eye and reassuring them about their son’s protection.
JRDI is responsible for the content of The Little Snowy Mountains Dinosaur Project which is the educational and research component for specimens collected through the work of the JRDI. It conducts six-day field courses to explore, collect, prepare, and curate fossils from their private dig sites. Participants excavate fossils in the field and then prepare and preserve them in the Dino Lab back in Billings. Collection only accounts for about 20 percent of paleontology with the remaining 80 percent related to fossil preparation, preservation, and study. The courses are led by paleontologist Nate Murphy and seasoned excavator Rodney Mangus.
The JRDI sites are some of the few Jurassic period strata in the world located at the surface. This hotbed for dinosaur fossils is responsible for 7 of the 14 known stegosaur skeletons in the world, including the first evidence suggesting sexual dimorphism (differences in the sexes). The large dorsal spearhead-shaped plates are 2 different sizes, with the smaller more round plates thought to be from females. In 2014, the excavation team uncovered a very large sauropod with 9 foot ribs, estimated to be 15 feet wide and 110 feet long and weighing about 55 tons, making it the largest dinosaur ever found in Montana. This is nearly twice the size of a city bus! Excavation last summer uncovered what appears to be an even larger sauropod underneath. Very interestingly, a well-preserved tooth was discovered, the first of its kind from these types of dinosaurs. They may be the bones of Haplocanthosaurus, closely related to Brachiosaurus, but it may be a new species. Stay tuned!
Excavation is dusty, dirty, hard work but very rewarding in a site like this. Dinner and relaxation at the nearby campsite is lively and entertaining….for awhile, until the very tired budding paleontologists cash in for the night. It was a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend for those so inclined to dream of dinosaurs. The REAL Jurassic Park.
Michael J. Manyak, MD
VP National Eagle Scout Association
Author, Lizard Bites and Street Riots, Travel Emergencies and Your Health, Safety, and Security