Unearthing the past: Public dino digs slated for this summer

2010-04-18T02:58:00Z Unearthing the past: Public dino digs slated for this summerBy BRIAN GEHRING Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune
April 18, 2010 2:58 am  • 

If you’re one of those people who likes to play in the dirt, John Hoganson has a deal for you.

Hoganson, state paleontologist, is heading four public fossil digs this summer in western North Dakota through the North Dakota Geologic Survey.

The public digs that began with one in 2000 have since gained popularity.

Hoganson said he approached the tourism department 10 years ago to pitch the idea as a way to promote ecotourism in the state.

And it’s worked.

The digs which will begin the middle of June have drawn thousands of volunteers from 24 different states and four countries, he said.

For the volunteers, it’s a mix of adventure and the potential for uncovering something that never has been seen by humans.

“The thrill of discovery,” Hoganson said. “That’s part of the adventure of it all.”

The first dig is set for Whiskey Creek, a remote area west of the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park on June 14-18.

Hoganson said the 60-million-year-old site that was recently discovered with excavations beginning last year is a remarkable example of what the Badlands has to offer when it comes to fossils.

The site contains fossils of 15-foot crocodiles, champsosaurs, crocodile-like reptiles, turtles and fish.

“It’s really a crocodile graveyard,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to be an important fossil site.”

Last year among the finds was a partial croc skull.

The work for the volunteers isn’t for the faint of heart because it takes place in remote areas under very extreme conditions as temperatures can often exceed triple digits during the day.

And there is a cost. Hogan said the $900 fee covers the cost of food, water and lodging which, in the case of the Whiskey Creek dig, will be camping at a park service campground.

If you just want to spend a day or two on the dig, the fee can be prorated, he said.

Depending on the location and size of the digs, the number of volunteers is limited and in most cases open to anyone over the age of 12.

Hoganson said his team of paleontologists provide the tools and training.

Other digs are scheduled for the Medora area June 21-27, Marmath Aug. 1-6 and Rhame at a time to be determined later.

Hoganson said what makes the North Dakota Badlands such an enticing destination for those interested in education vacations is the relative accessibility of prehistoric fossils.

Eighty million years ago, give or take, North Dakota was part of a vast, warm shallow-water ocean that supported a plethora of marine reptiles, fish and invertabrates.

As the waters receded, a tropical swamp land took its place, harboring other forms of life like dinosaurs and prehistorical mammals.

Natural weathering of the rocks and soils left many of fossiles exposed or within easy reach, he said.

“The history of life in North Dakota is so interesting and incredible,” Hoganson said.

Heather LeMoine, marketing manager for the North Dakota Commerce Department’s tourism division, said the digs are definitely something on many people’s radar.

“It’s something we really like to play up, especially during the spring,” she said.

In addition to the digs, LeMoine said another marketing strategy is to promote the family aspect of the experience and then tie it all together with museums around the state like the Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson and Heritage Center in Bismarck.

“The response has really been encouraging,” she said. “For people who want to get their hands dirty and find it for themselves, it’s amazing to think that part of the Jurassic period in history exists all across North Dakota.”

Hoganson said the digs are conducted on public land that is managed by agencies like the U. S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or groups like the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.

“They provide us all kinds of logistical support,” he said. “They have been great partners with us.”

Hoganson said the public digs help add to the scientific value of the state fossils collection that has been more than 20 years in the making.

One piece staff members are now working on is an Edmontosaurus which recently returned to the Heritage Center after a stint on display in Japan.

And then there are your run-of-the-mill, garden-variety dinosaurs like triceratops, duck-billed dinosaurs, mosasauers, dromaeosauers, a velociraptor-like dinosaur, as well as plants, footprints — a veritable smorgasborg of prehistoric possibilities.

“We have a good idea of what we will find there, but that’s part of the adventure,” Hoganson said. “You never quite know what you will find.”

For information on the digs, contact Hoganson by

e-mail: jhoganso@nd.gov or visit the state department of mineral resources website at www.dmr.nd.gov and follow the link to the geologic survey page and fossil dig page.

(Reach reporter Brian Gehring at 250-8254 or brian.gehring@bismarcktribune.com.)

Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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