Maiasaura Life History Project: The Art of Scientific Research (Part 2)

It’s one thing to be a detective. It’s another to be an artist: shifting expectations, making unlikely comparisons, causing one to consider entirely new perspectives.

Comparing elements of extant alligators and red deer to an extinct hadrosaur certainly changes how one views paleontology.  There is something unifying about it, connecting traits of living species—creatures that share the world with us today—to species that died out millions of years ago.  Instead of a scientific field one might put into a box labeled “the study of the past,” it becomes an increasingly complex vine weaving the past with the present.  And if animals as seemingly disparate as alligators, red deer and hadrosaurs share similarities, what else among us does?

Maiasaura HWB - Maiasaura replica

Maiasaura peeblesorum model; courtesy Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard

This connection was made all the more apparent in speaking with Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard about her background and her recent paper.  Her love of dinosaurs and microscopes were a perfect match for osteohistology, a field she pursued during her Masters.

Dr. Jim Farlow and Dr. Jack Horner—both members of her PhD committee and who have experience studying the bone microstructure of alligators and Maiasaura respectively—contributed to her Maiasaura peeblesorum research. They acknowledge that comparing alligator bone growth to dinosaurs has been done before; alligator bone growth has been studied extensively.

Red deer on the Isle of Rum, however, have been studied even longer. Dr. Woodward Ballard and her colleagues found similarities to Maiasaura in their survivorship rates, as well as within their bone microstructure.

Just as the red deer in Scotland, Maiasaura seem to have experienced a high mortality rate in the first year.  If, however, they survived that first year, they seemed more likely to live through sexual maturity, which may have been between 2-3 years of age. Eight or nine years marks another difficult year for both species. This is when their bodies appear to decline, or senesce, and they are at greater risk for mortality at this age.  Dr. Woodward Ballard and her colleagues note that one Maiasaura tibia with 10 lines of arrested growth (“LAGs”, indicating 10 years of life) appeared to still be growing.

“We have to understand the biology of modern animals and how it works before we can make any kind of hypotheses or inferences into extinct animals,” she explained. “The most important thing I learned from this experience was that we really don’t know as much as we should know about how modern animals grow and the life history details that are stored their bone tissue.”

“It’s sort of circular in that the more we learn about modern animals to apply it to the extinct ones, the more we learn about how bone biology works, how bone grows, and that has direct applications to the medical field, to veterinary biology, and to all kinds of modern fields where bone biomechanics and that sort of thing play a big role.”

Studying bones was only part of the research.  The other involved applying statistical models to the data compiled.  There are advantages to so many fossils from what the authors of the paper described as a  “monodominant” bonebed.  As mentioned in the previous post, the Maiasaura bones originate from three bonebeds in Montana, but these bonebeds are from the same stratigraphy across 2 km.  This means that the scientists can be relatively sure these animals experienced the same environmental stresses.  Differences in the bones, therefore, would indicate differences within each animal instead of being caused by external factors.

And the number of tibia studied in this paper was highly significant.

“There was one paper that came out about the mortality rates–survivorship curve distribution,” said Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler of Montana State University, co-author of Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard’s paper, “and the math in that was fairly complicated. Holly wanted to make sure that she did it right, and so that’s where I came in. It is quite complicated math making sure that you get all the different steps right.  Because the paper was critiquing and criticizing a previous paper that had done it wrong slightly, we wanted to use the methods of this kind of revision paper to make sure that we analyzed things appropriately.”

Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler new dinosaur

Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler with a painting of an entirely separate (and new!) species of hadrosaur she helped discoverProbrachylophosaurus bergei; photo by Sepp Janotta of the Montana State University News Service

 

“[A sample size of 50] was their suggestion,” she explained further, “because the previous histology papers that have been looking at mortality rates, they’ve been using a much smaller sample size: 10-15 individuals, [for example], which is still big for paleontology. But, you know, the smaller your sample size, the greater the chance that what you’re seeing is just random variation in your sample.  Whereas when you get a larger sample size, you can be more confident that you’re more accurately representing the population.

“Normally with dinosaurs you only have maybe two or three examples of a single species. So there’s really not much you can do mathematically because there’s just not enough data to run statistics on.”

Referenced throughout their paper was one published in Paleobiology in 2011 by David Steinsaltz and Steven Hecht Orzack.  The Steinsaltz/Orzack paper was a response to one published in Science in 2006.

“Based on [Steinsaltz and Orzack’s] modeling,” Dr. Woodward Ballard explained, “they recommended that the minimum sample size of 50 is what you would need for an extinct population in order to figure out what the shape of the survivorship curve is.  It’s not really a hard-and-fast rule.  But this is the only time that mathematicians have actually suggested a minimum number for producing statistically robust survivorship curves for dinosaurs. The fact that we were able to then meet their suggested requirements was pretty important.”

Upon first reading the paper by Dr. Woodward Ballard et al, I believed that one needed a sample of at least 50 fossils of a species in order to estimate a statistically-significant survivorship curve.  But—of all numbers—why 50? And why so many when most bones of extinct species are not as abundant as those found so far for Maiasaura?

Over the course of a conversation with Dr. Steven Orzack, I learned that what he and his co-author offered was a way to decrease potential misclassification errors in statistical calculations.

In simplest terms, they were raising the bar.

The 2006 paper by Erickson et al had used a sample size of 22 different Albertosaurus skeletons to calculate a convex survivorship curve. Convex, in other words, means that the survival rates decrease with age.

Yale - Albertosaurus side great

Cast of Albertosaurus libratus from (appropriately for this post) Red Deer River Valley, Alberta, Canada at the Yale Peabody Museum; image taken by the author of this blog

 

By using computer simulation to repeatedly “resample” that estimated curve, as well as a survivorship curve that was not convex (one in which some survival rates increased with age), Steinsaltz and Orzack found that about 10% of the simulated samples of size 22 taken from the non-convex sample would look convex. Such a result would mislead a scientist to misclassify the underlying survivorship curve as being convex when, in fact, it was non-convex.  When they repeated this process by more than doubling it to a sample size of 50, they discovered the misclassification error rate fell to less than 1%.

Paleontologists don’t always have access to a wealth of fossils from the same species.  This is something Dr. Orzack—trained as both a paleontologist and a neontologist—knows all too well.

HMNH - Deionychus

HMNH - Deionychus skull

Images of a partial Deinonychus skeleton, discovered in Montana in 1974 by Dr. Steven Orzack and a team of Harvard researchers, now at the Harvard Museum of Natural History; images taken by the author

 

“I don’t have any problem with sample sizes of 22 in the sense that if that’s the best you have, that’s fine,” he said. “What would have been better is [if Erickson et al had done] the statistics better.”

“Convexity,” he stated, “is a very specific claim.”

“[There are] weaker conclusions you can make about how survival rates change with age than [those published in the paper by Erickson et al.] If you boost your sample size to 50, you have a much lower probability of saying incorrectly that there is convexity when there isn’t,” he concluded.

“Paleontology is moving in a much more mathematical and analytical direction,” Dr. Freedman Fowler explained. “ We’re trying to be more rigorous and treat it more like a modern science.  That’s why we often use the term ‘paleobiology,’ instead of just ‘paleontology’ now. We’re trying to use the science and the tools of modern biology to look at how fossil organisms lived and kind of reconstruct their lives.”

And certainly, the math contained within the paper by Dr. Woodward Ballard, Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler and their colleagues is—to someone like myself—a bit overwhelming.

When speaking with Dr. Freedman Fowler, I asked her if her mathematical skills were rare within the field.

“I wouldn’t say ‘rare’,” she replied, “but it’s certainly not all of us. There are quite a lot of other paleontologists that use R and use math and things. But it’s a minority that goes in that direction.”

Maiasaura HWB - Maiasaura life history

FIGURE 6. Survivorship curve for Maiasaura. Sample size of 50 tibiae was standardized to an initial cohort of 1000 individuals (assumes 0% neonate mortality). Survivorship is based on the number of individuals surviving to reach age x (the end of the growth hiatus marked by LAG x). Age at death for individuals over 1 year old was determined by the number of LAGs plus growth marks within the EFS, when present. Error bars represent 95% confidence interval. Mean annual mortality rates (μ^) given for age ranges 0–1 years, 2–8 years, and 9–15 years. Vertical gray bars visually separate the three mortality rate age ranges; courtesy Dr. Woodward Ballard.

 

“Paleontology is very collaborative because it’s such a broad and interdisciplinary field. Nobody can be an expert in everything.”

When I asked her whether the sub-fields within paleontology have always been so diverse, she responded, “It is certainly a more recent development, and that’s true for many sciences.”

“[Looking back at] papers written 50 years ago, they’re almost all single authors. They’re also much more simple. These papers were just ‘I found this new species. Here’s what it looks like.’  There wasn’t much analysis.

“But now, as all these different branches of science have grown–all the different subfields within biology and geology and chemistry–we’re getting so many more tools that we can use to analyze fossils and look at them in all these different ways.  We’re also having a much larger sample size of fossils. We’re constantly out in the field collecting new specimens and that’s filling in gaps.  Between two species, [for example], we now find the intermediate species.  And we’re getting more complete growth series—the ontogenetic series—of animals. We’re out there finding juvenile dinosaurs and sub-adult dinosaurs and comparing them to the adult dinosaurs.

“Because we’re always adding this data, we always have more and more to work with. So we’re able to do types of analyses that we couldn’t 50 years ago. It was just impossible.”

And this paper is only the beginning. Dr. Woodward Ballard explained that she wants to “really make Maiasaura the dinosaur that we know the most about and really use it as a model to compare to other dinosaurs.”

In a moment of reflection, she said, “I get this question a lot:  ‘Well, great, you’re studying dinosaurs, but what’s that going to do for me?’”

She hopes that the interest in dinosaurs will pull people into science in general, describing a scenario in which the kids—wanting to see dinosaurs—visit a museum with their parents.  While there, the family may learn of other scientific discoveries, prompting even more interest in various scientific fields.

“The more we can make dinosaurs these realistic animals, [not just animals that are no longer around], I think it’s really going to get [kids] interested in science and the world around them.  Being able to continue to add more information to Maiasaura, I think, is going to be the way to really draw people in.”

“The big thing for me,” she said, “is not only collecting fossils, but [also] bringing college-aged kids to Montana to see a different part of the United States, [especially those] kids who might not [otherwise] have the opportunity to be exposed to science.”

“There’s still so much that can be done with the Maiasaura bonebed,” she continued, “with Maiasaura as an animal, so [many] opportunities for outreach and scientific investigation. I spoke with Jack Horner about this during my dissertation work and afterwards; I told him that I would really like to be able to work on Maiasaura potentially for the rest of my career. He thought it was a great idea.  I’ll do other research, too, but I plan to get out to Montana every summer.

“There’s just so much work that I decided to call it the ‘Maiasaura Life History Project’ and every paper that comes out will just be adding to what we already know about Maiasaura.”

At this time, there is no overall funding for the project. Dr. Woodward Ballard is currently writing grant proposals for future expeditions.

 

Holly Woodward-WCA-Branvold Quarry-Aug5-2015

Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard; photo by Dr. Karen Chin, courtesy of Dr. Woodward Ballard

 

 

References:

  1. Maiasaura, a model organism for extinct population biology: a large sample statistical assessment of growth dynamics and survivorship; Holly N. Woodward, Elizabeth A. Freedman Fowler, James O. Farlow, John R. Horner, Paleobiology, October 2015
  2. Statistical methods for paleodemography on fossil assemblages having small numbers of specimens: an investigation of dinosaur survivorship rates; David Steinsaltz, Steven Hecht Orzack, Paleobiology, Winter 2011
  3. Largest dinosaur population growth study ever shows how Maiasaura lived and died, Montana State University, MSU News Service
  4. MSU team finds new dinosaur species, reveals evolutionary link, Montana State University, MSU News Service
  5. Tyrannosaur Life Tables: An Example of Nonavian Dinosaur Population Biology; Gregory M. Erickson, Philip J. Currie, Brian D. Inouye, Alice A. Winn

 

**I need to stress that the methods used in this paper and the overall research by Dr. Woodward Ballard and Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler were extremely complex. Dr. Woodard Ballard, Dr. Freedman Fowler and Dr. Orzack graciously walked me through scientific and statistical elements that I had trouble understanding. If there are any errors in this post, they are my own.

Also, while comparisons between extant and extinct species may be normal to those in the field, it was not as dramatically apparent to me until this paper. 

I would like to extend, again, an enormous THANK YOU to Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard. I would also like to extend that same thank you to Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler and Dr. Steven Orzack.  It was a great pleasure and honor speaking with each of them–not to mention fun!–and I am profoundly grateful for their generosity!  

I am very eager to learn more as the Maiasaura Life History Project continues!! 

Maiasaura Life History Project: Paleontology at an Entirely New Depth (Part 1)

I envy the future.

I really do.

Every time I read a dinosaur book—whether a kids’ book with my nieces and nephews or otherwise—I am reminded just how much we’ve learned since I was young. It is staggering, the amount of information available to dinosaur enthusiasts. Whether it is in the number of new species discovered each year, the unbelievable details paleontologists glean (from teeth alone!), or the new technology that helps scientists unravel the once unknowable.

If this is what we know now, and in the relatively brief time since paleontology was first established, what are we going to know fifty years from now? A century? A millennium?

I think about the future almost as much as I marvel at the past. Assuming our knowledge base only increases, the future of paleontology promises to reveal what can only be—at this point in time—imagined.

Which is why when I learned of the Maiasaura Life History Project, I had to know more.

Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard wants to flesh out one particular species of dinosaur such that we know it almost as intimately as living animals today.  That species is a type of hadrosaur, an extinct herbivore from the late Cretaceous. Thanks to almost 40 years of excavation in Montana, we have thousands of its fossils from which to extract information and this, according to Dr. Woodward Ballard, is to be her life’s work.

Holly Woodward-WCA-Branvold Quarry-Aug5-2015

Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard at Branvold Quarry, August 2015; Photo taken by Dr. Karen Chin, courtesy of Dr. Woodward Ballard

Maiasaura peeblesorum was inadvertently discovered in the late 1970s, both by the people who initially found the bones and by the paleontologists who eventually described them.  “Inadvertently” because Marion and John Brandvold, the people who found the bones, didn’t know what they’d found, and because Dr. Jack Horner and Bob Makela—who had done extensive research prior to their expedition—did not expect to find the object of their search in a local fossil shop they visited on a whim.

The 1988 book “Digging Dinosaurs” by Jack Horner and James Gorman describes this discovery. In it, there is a fascinating anecdote: Prior to 1978—the year Maiasaura peeblesorum was found—they say that the number of adult fossils found globally could be listed in a volume the size of a book. The number of juvenile fossils could be listed in something the size of a pamphlet.  But the number of known baby fossils could fit on an index card.

All of that changed thanks to Dr. Horner and Bob Makela. The Brandvold bones gave them specific clues about where to look and what to look for.  Their subsequent excavations revealed not only numerous baby dinosaurs, but actual nests. These significant discoveries prompted the following revolutionary ideas: that some dinosaurs may have cared for their young and that they may have been warm-blooded. The latter hypothesis continues to be debated today.

Paleontologists have been digging in the area ever since.  Their efforts have produced one of the few species of dinosaur to be so well represented in the fossil record, a fact that inspired Dr. Woodward Ballard in her research at Montana State University.

Maiasaura field site Montana

Maiasaura field site in Montana, photo courtesy of Dr. Woodward Ballard

Jack Horner, her PhD advisor, proposed the idea that she focus on population histology—revealing the growth history of a specific dinosaur species.  Given her interest in osteohistology and the wealth of Maiasaura fossils, this seemed a perfect fit.  Her dissertation was but a prelude to the work that followed.

This past October, Dr. Woodward Ballard, now of Oklahoma State University, Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler and Dr. Jack Horner of Montana State University and Dr. Jim Farlow of Indiana Purdue University published a paper in Paleobiology on the growth and survivorship rates of Maiasaura peeblesorumThe paper was unique in that, unlike most dinosaur species, they had 50 bones with which to analyze and sample.

Bone microstructure, much like trees or proboscidean tusks, records the growth of an animal in rings. In this case, Dr. Woodward Ballard was able to identify the “lines of arrested growth” (or “LAGs” for short).

“A LAG,”she explained by phone, “represents a period of missing time.”

Growth rings in Maiasaura bone

Growth rings in Maiasaura bone, courtesy of Dr. Woodward Ballard

The paper is a fascinating glimpse into the depth of detective work paleontologists must do in order to understand long extinct species. Comparing bone growth in extant reptiles and mammals to these fossil bones, using complicated statistical models, and analyzing bone structure under the microscope, the authors offer an extraordinary view into the life of Maiasaura.  It is, to date, the largest sample set of a single dinosaur species analyzed to such a degree.

Fifty Maiasaura tibiae from three Montana bonebeds provided the details. This specific leg bone was chosen for analysis because it displays histology so clearly.  The same is not true, for example, of a hadrosaur femur.

“The femur,” Dr. Woodward Ballard said, “is special in all hadrosaurs, [not just] Maiasaura. It has this big flange coming off of it, and it’s this spur bone that a fairly large tail muscle was attached to.”

“Because bone responds to stress and remodels based on the stress that’s applied to it, this flange of bone is always changing and getting larger as the [animal grows.] The remodeling that occurs within [this] bone overprints–or erases–the original signal that was there. So it’s very hard to get at that same record of growth in the femur because it’s constantly being erased in that particular area.”

One of the things they discovered through lines of arrested growth (LAGs) was that most of the tibiae in this study belonged to Maiasaura younger than a year old.

But deciphering this required understanding bone growth in living species.

“We have to use modern animals and use what we see in their bones as a basis for what we say in the fossil record,” she replied when asked about this. “We have to assume that the same processes today were working back in the Cretaceous (in this case).”

So they looked to previously published alligator studies and those of the red deer on the Isle of Rum, Scotland—one of the most extensively studied mammals anywhere in the world.

Acknowledging that these inferences should be treated with some caution, they note similarities in tibia bone growth between alligators and Maiasaura. Growth marks within the bone and lines of arrested growth (LAGs) are similar in red deer and this species of dinosaur.

“When the growth is being kept track of from year-to-year, we find that one LAG appears every year for every year of growth,” she explained.

Hence, if there are no LAGs in the bone, it indicates that the animal was less than a year. And the high mortality rate among such young animals—considerably smaller than their enormous parents and therefore not as able, perhaps, to aptly defend themselves—is not necessarily surprising.  The paper also calculates survivorship rates among Maiasaura, enabling us to know how old the dinosaur was at sexual maturity, how long it tended to live, the age at which it was at higher risk for mortality among its species.

“Once I compiled the data from Maiasaura,” she said, “got all the bone measurements, got all the LAG circumference measurements within the bones—I realized that I wanted this paper to be more than just quantitative and simple growth curve graphs. I mean, I could do that much, but I really wanted it to be statistically strong, very robust, something that followed the rules put forth by other papers, such as the Steinsaltz and Orzack paper. [Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler] was just a natural choice to have to help me figure out what to do with all this data.”

————–

In Part 2: more detail about the Maiasaura peeblesorum survivorship curves, as well as applying complicated statistical methods to paleontological data.

An enormous and sincere thank you to Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard for her generosity: her time, her patience, her willingness to go over points I had difficulty understanding and for the beautiful pictures accompanying this post!

References:

  1. Maiasaura, a model organism for extinct population biology: a large sample statistical assessment of growth dynamics and survivorship; Holly N. Woodward, Elizabeth A. Freedman Fowler, James O. Farlow, John R. Horner, Paleobiology, October 2015
  2. Digging Dinosaurs, John R. Horner and James Gorman, 1988, Workman Publishing Ltd
  3. Largest dinosaur population growth study ever shows how Maiasaura lived and died, Montana State University, MSU News Service

Digging Dinosaurs book cover

Jack Horner - inscription for post

Treasured copy of “Digging Dinosaurs”, the book that details the discovery of Maiasaura peeblesorum and its nests, signed by Jack Horner at the Boston Museum of Science when the author of this blog met him in 2013

Wankel T. Rex: Historic Fossil and National Treasure Moves to DC

Almost 30 years ago, Kathy Wankel discovered a few bones while vacationing with her family. Bringing these bones to the Museum of the Rockies, Montana—instead of keeping them–enabled paleontologists to uncover a rare, almost complete T. Rex skeleton.

This week, that fossil moves to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Kathy Wankel, Sheldon McKamey (Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies), Dr. David Varricchio (Associate Professor at Montana State University) and Julie Price (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) describe the discovery of the Wankel T-Rex, the challenges of excavating fossils, and the reasons behind this week’s transition.

Big Mike - Bronze Cast of Wankel T.Rex

(image of the bronze cast of the Wankel T.Rex, known as “Big Mike”, image courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies)

Labor Day weekend, 1988, the Wankel family vacationed at Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana, near the Badlands.

Kathy Wankel and her husband, Tom, were taking a moment to look for fossils on a nearby island.

And Kathy actually found a few bones.

“I would like to confess up-front that really it was either blind luck or divine providence that I found the thing,” wrote Kathy Wankel in an email, referring to the fossil that has come to be known as the “Wankel T. Rex.”

“And here is why I think so: Yes, I was a curious ‘rock hound’ and was fascinated by the Badlands that surrounded the Ft. Peck Reservoir. And yes, I was looking for a fossil when I discovered the T. Rex. But when I say ‘a fossil,’ by that I mean that prior to finding our T. Rex, I had found bits and pieces of what I thought were fossils, but I had never before found an entire fossil bone!”

We know now that what she found was absolutely extraordinary: at the time, it was one of only eleven T.Rex fossils ever found, most of which were not as complete as what she had discovered.

But on that weekend, they just knew they had dinosaur bones. Neither the species nor the size of the fossil was apparent.

Kathy described the discovery in detail.

“My husband, Tom, and I and our three children, Lee (then 8 years old), Rock (then 5), and Whitney (then 14 months) were enjoying one last weekend of camping and fishing at Ft. Peck Reservoir before the start of the school year. Tom’s brother, Jim, and his daughter, Christy, were also camped there with us.

“Jim generously offered to look after the children while Tom and I took the boat across the bay to look for bones. Tom was walking below along the base of a small, eroded gumbo ridge while I walked along the top of the ridge. The sun was just right, and I spotted a small knife-blade-shaped protrusion in the gumbo. I could see some fine whitish-grey chips and the distinctive bone pattern. Just as I was getting a closer look, Tom yelled that he thought he may have found something. I said ‘You’d better come up here…I think I have found something better!’

“The gumbo clay dirt surrounding the bones was baked hard as cement as Montana was experiencing an extreme drought that year. We used Tom’s pocketknife to chisel away at the gumbo surrounding the bones, but decided we needed more tools. The small protrusion of bones later turned out to be the top ridge of the shoulder blade and the ends of some rib bones. I was so excited, and exclaimed to Tom ‘I think this is a MEGA-FIND!’ I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal, but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.

“I was so excited, and exclaimed to Tom ‘I think this is a MEGA-FIND!’  I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal, but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to. “ – Kathy Wankel, discoverer of the Wankel T.Rex

 

“We went back to camp and loaded everyone in the boat to come see what we had found. But more digging would have to wait for another time. We needed to pack up camp and get home to get ready for school. We vowed to come back the following weekend. But that didn’t happen. As you may recall, 1988 was the year of the terrible fires in Yellowstone Park. Our governor put a moratorium on all outdoor activity, and it was mid-October before we were able to go see what exactly we had found. The evening of the day we removed the bones there was a horrific thunder and lightning storm.”

The Wankels took the bones to the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman, where paleontologists Jack Horner and Pat Leiggi recognized the bones as the shoulder and arm bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

These relatively fragile bones had never been recovered before.

As Dr. David Varricchio, Associate Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and one of the original excavators, explained, “At the time it was discovered, the specimen had the best (most complete) T. rex arm ever discovered. Those little arms just don’t preserve very well in contrast to all the rest of the skeleton which is much more robust.”

He emphasizes the importance of what the Wankels did with the bones they’d discovered.

“The bones were found by amateur [fossil hunters] who did the right thing: they called a museum.”

This is a choice not everyone makes.

One has but to look at the controversy surrounding Sue, another T. Rex skeleton found in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson, or review fossils available for sale online. The United States as a whole has no definitive law regarding fossils found on land outside of that owned by Federal agencies. [*Per Paul Rubenstein at USACE, there is a law regarding Federal lands: the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Public Law 111-011] These laws are left to each state. Hence, some states within the US have laws protecting paleontological finds; others do not.

When asked what prompted her to bring the bones to MOR, Kathy wrote in an email, “I knew that the Museum of the Rockies had recently excavated and preserved a triceratops skull that was found on a neighbor’s ranch. I thought the people at MOR would have the expertise to identify the kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.”

“The bones stayed in our basement,” she continued, “until November of 1988 when we made a trip to Bozeman to be with my sister for Thanksgiving. We took our ‘find’ to MOR and asked if someone could identify the bones we had found.

“Pat Leiggi came outside to our station wagon, took one look, and with big eyes said, ‘You’d better come with me!’ Pat and the other paleontologists were able to immediately identify the bones as belonging to a meat-eating dinosaur and they were pretty sure the bones were the small front arm bones of a T. Rex, some of which had never been found before!”

Below is a timeline of the events that followed, as described in The Complete T. Rex by Jack Horner and Don Lessem:

  • Labor Day weekend, 1988: Kathy Wankel discovers the bones
  • May 1989: paleontologists from MOR accompany the Wankels to the place of discovery
  • September 1989: additional paleontologists return to this site for further digging and review
  • June 1990: actual excavation of the fossil begins

Someone who is neither a paleontologist nor familiar with fossil digs might wonder why more than a year passed before the full excavation began.

Sheldon McKamey, Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies, explained further.

“When you find fossils on the surface of the ground,” she said in a phone interview, “you don’t know if they’re the first bones of an entire skeleton underground, whether they’re the first bones to ‘weather out,’ or if they’re the last bones and everything else is gone. I mean, you just don’t know. So when you find something, you kind of poke around and see if there’s more. Because you don’t know at which stage you’re finding that specimen.”

In other words, there is always a chance that no further bones exist.

The paleontologists who explored the site in May 1989 thought there might indeed be more below the surface. This is what prompted a second crew, she added, to go out that September–once the tourist season in the area had passed–and try to discover even more.

“That’s when we found significant parts of the animal,” she said.

But even knowing that more bones exist underground does not necessarily accelerate the dig. There are challenges to excavating fossils.

It is never a quick process, and one must take into account the climate of the area, the logistics of assembling a crew—the people and equipment needed—and the constraints of scientists who are generally working on limited budgets with limited time. Not to mention the accessibility (or lack thereof) of the site itself.

“The land is so inhospitable,” Sheldon McKamey explained of the Badlands, “It’s hard to get things. We find things occasionally that we would love to collect, but there’s no way to get them out. The land really dictates what you can collect.”

 “The land really dictates what you can collect.” – Sheldon McKamey, Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT

 

(Badlands near Hell Creek, Montana, photo by Alan Majchrowicz, courtesy Getty Images)

According to Jack Horner and Don Lessem (The Complete T. Rex), the crew needed “an antiquities permit” from the landowners—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)–in order to excavate there. The USACE representatives with whom they spoke were “unbelievably cooperative.”

Julie Price, the USACE Omaha District Cultural Resource Program Manager, offered additional information about this ownership.

“The land where the Wankel T. Rex was discovered was acquired for the Ft. Peck Dam and Ft. Peck Lake by the 1935 Rivers and Harbors Act,” she wrote in an email. “Basically, the Federal Government acquired lands necessary to construct the dam and impound the waters of the reservoir. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the land-managing agency for the lands surrounding Ft. Peck Lake.”

“Nationally,” she added, “USACE manages 12 million acres of public land and waters, which includes 54,800 miles of shoreline, 7,700 miles of trails and 92,800 campsites.”

When Kathy Wankel found the bones, the area was an island. When paleontologists returned to dig, the water level had dropped.

One might be surprised to know that the USACE generously bulldozed a road into the area in order to help paleontologists access the dig site and then help remove the fossil once excavated.

“This excavation was quite unique as this fossil was not found by a paleontologist with a permit to search and/or excavate on federal land, but a happenstance discovery by a member of the public,” Julie Price wrote. “Since the specimen was located on USACE-managed lands, it was the responsibility of the USACE (federal agency) to preserve and protect the fossil. At the time of excavation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the capability to assist with heavy equipment needed for the road construction. However, several entities donated time, effort, equipment and professional expertise. The significance of this find spurred all entities to come together to ensure proper preservation and care of the fossil.”

This includes Sheldon McKamey’s brother, Bill, who drove his flatbed semi over 300 miles to the site and then—with sections of the fossil, plastered for protection and ready to travel—another 360 miles to the museum once the excavation was completed. Tom Wankel also helped with his grain-truck.

Dr. David Varricchio described his experience as a member of the excavation crew.

“I was a grad student at the time,” he wrote, “and had worked at a few dinosaur sites before. These were mostly bone-beds of disarticulated skeletons. So, when we got the whole skeleton uncovered and could stand back and look at it as it lay in the ground….that was incredibly impressive. Even though it was dead a long time ago, it still was awe-inspiring and really fit the word ‘dinosaur’. Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most impressive fossil localities I have ever experienced.”

“Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most impressive fossil localities I have ever experienced.”—Dr. David Varricchio, Associate Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and one of the original excavators

“We tried to keep the site location a secret, or at least, told as few people as possible in an effort to avoid unwanted visitors,” Dr. Varricchio continued. “So, we were startled one day to see a truck rumbling towards us in the distance.”

“As it got closer, we were further surprised to see that it was a FedEx truck.”

“We all watched in wonder, scratching our heads, as it continued to drive all the way to the site. The driver got out and said, ‘I’ve got a package for Greg Erickson.’ Greg, currently a paleontologist at Florida State University, was a fellow grad student also working on the site. I don’t remember what it was he got.”

With some amusement, Dr. Varricchio recalled, “The driver had asked in town, and they gave him directions. Apparently, everyone knew where we were.”

No small feat in an expanse of land that is remarkably unpopulated and difficult to access.

And the need for secrecy, sadly, makes sense. Fossil theft and damage–then and now—is a very real concern.

Sheldon McKamey, hired by MOR as Director of Marketing in 1987, highlighted this by stating that “if you’d uncovered bones and then left them, anybody could’ve stopped there and scavenged them or damaged them.” She noted that once excavation began, people remained at the site to protect them.

“We knew this was a big deal,” Sheldon McKamey said, “We’d done a lot of advance press on it. We had a NOVA crew coming out to do a documentary on it. And we wanted to have a ‘public day’, so the people that wanted to see it from the surrounding area, or the legislators, or whoever could come. As we dug it up, we knew that we couldn’t put it in plaster until people had a chance to see it.”

“As soon as the press day was over, we started jacketing everything, and it takes a long time to do that.”

Since the excavation, researchers at the Museum of the Rockies have prepared the bones so that they appear in-situ, a process that took years to complete. A bronze cast of the skeleton–upright and complete, as it may have appeared in life–has been greeting museum visitors for years at the entrance to the museum.

This week, however, the fossil is moving to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The move was originally set to take place in October 2013, but this was rescheduled due to the government shut-down.

When asked why the decision to move the fossil was made, Julie Price responded, “The Wankel T. Rex will always remain the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Smithsonian Institute approached the Museum of the Rockies and USACE about a long-term loan agreement for the Wankel T. Rex to be showcased in their new exhibit in Washington, DC.”

“USACE, the Museum and the people of Montana are very proud of the significance of the specimens that reside in the state. Through a collaborative effort with all entities,” she explained, “USACE quickly realized the contribution this particular specimen would have to the nation. The Wankel T. Rex will be on display in the new 31,000 square foot exhibit space within the National Museum of Natural History and available to eight million visitors annually. Additionally, this specimen will increase research opportunities for scientists and scholars nationwide.”

“USACE, the Museum [of the Rockies] and the people of Montana are very proud of the significance of the specimens that reside in the state.  Through a collaborative effort with all entities, USACE quickly realized the contribution this particular specimen would have to the nation.”—Julie Price, USACE Omaha District Cultural Resource Program Manager

Sheldon McKamey concurs.

“It’s such a wonderful specimen that we’re sharing. We agreed that it should be shared with everybody at the Smithsonian.”

“We have a second US Army Corps of Engineers specimen in our collection, and that one we’re going to mount in the next year or so and put on display at the Museum of the Rockies. So, people will see one here, and they’ll see one at the Smithsonian.”

“The fact is,” she continued, “we’re a research institution, and we got significant data from it. And we don’t collect things just for display. So this is something that I think will benefit a lot of people. And we know that it’s always going to say at the label at the Smithsonian that it’s the Wankel T. Rex, and the museum’s name is going to be a part of that. That’s pretty significant.”

When asked if he was surprised about the fossil move, Dr. Varricchio replied, “Not really. It was collected on federal land, so technically it belongs to the people of the US, and so it seems natural that it would go to the Smithsonian. Plus, MOR has collected a couple more [T.Rex fossils]; our shelves are pretty full. DC is a wonderful place for many people from the US and abroad to get to see it.”

But Kathy Wankel has a slightly different opinion.

“We have mixed feelings about the Wankel T. Rex being moved to DC,” she wrote. “We feel very honored that millions of people will be viewing our discovery and that our T. Rex will now be known as ‘The Nation’s T. Rex.’ The loan/lease agreement between the USACE and the Smithsonian is for 50 years. We hope that our T. Rex will be able to come home to Montana at the end of those 50 years.”

The Wankel T. Rex begins its journey to D.C. on April 11th. Events are planned at the Smithsonian on April 15th to celebrate its arrival.

And how does one move a fossil of that size across the country?

Apparently, the Smithsonian has contracted the very same company that surprised the crew during the dig.

It will be moved by a FedEx truck.


————-

Full Q&A with Kathy Wankel, discoverer of the Wankel T. Rex:

1. Were you looking for fossils when you found the bones? Do you want to describe how you found them?

 
I would like to confess up front that really it was either blind luck or divine providence that I found the thing. And here is why I think so: Yes, I was a curious “rock hound” and was fascinated by the badlands that surrounded the Ft. Peck reservoir. And yes, I was looking for a fossil when I discovered the T. Rex. But when I say “a fossil”, by that I mean that prior to finding our T. Rex, I had found bits and pieces of what I thought were fossils, but I had never before found an entire fossil bone!
We found our T. Rex Labor Day weekend of 1988. My husband, Tom, and I and our three children, Lee (then 8 years old), Rock (then 5), and Whitney (then 14 months) were enjoying one last weekend of camping and fishing at Ft. Peck Reservoir before the start of the school year. Tom’s brother, Jim, and his daughter, Christy, were also camped there with us.

Jim generously offered to look after the children while Tom and I took the boat across the bay to look for bones. Tom was walking below along the base of a small, eroded gumbo ridge while I walked along the top of the ridge. The sun was just right and I spotted a small knife-blade-shaped protrusion in the gumbo. I could see some fine whitish-grey chips and the distinctive bone pattern. Just as I was getting a closer look, Tom yelled that he thought he may have found something. I said “You’d better come up here…I think I have found something better!”

The gumbo clay dirt surrounding the bones was baked hard as cement as Montana was experiencing an extreme drought that year. We used Tom’s pocketknife to chisel away at the gumbo surrounding the bones but decided we needed more tools. The small protrusion of bones later turned out to be the top ridge of the shoulder blade and the ends of some rib bones. I was so excited and exclaimed to Tom “I think this is a MEGA-FIND”! I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.

We went back to camp and loaded everyone in the boat to come see what we had found. But more digging would have to wait for another time. We needed to pack up camp and get home to get ready for school. We vowed to come back the following weekend. But that didn’t happen. As you may recall, 1988 was the year of the terrible fires in Yellowstone Park. Our governor put a moratorium on all outdoor activity and it was mid-October before we were able to go see what exactly we had found. The evening of the day we removed the bones there was a horrific thunder and lightning storm.

2. What prompted you to bring them to the Museum of the Rockies?
I knew that the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) had recently excavated and preserved a triceratops skull that was found on a neighbor’s ranch. I thought the people at MOR would have the expertise to identify the kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.
The bones stayed in our basement until November of 1988 when we made a trip to Bozeman to be with my sister for Thanksgiving. We took our “find” to MOR and asked if someone could identify the bones we had found. Pat Leiggi came outside to our station wagon, took one look and with big eyes said “You’d better come with me!” Pat and the other paleontologists were able to immediately identify the bones as belonging to a meat-eating dinosaur and they were pretty sure the bones were the small front arm bones of a T. Rex, some of which had never been found before!

3. You discovered the bones in 1988, but the actual dig didn’t begin until 1990. There is a very cute passage in The Complete T-Rex (Jack Horner/Don Lessem, as I’m sure you know!) that describes the paleontologists asking you to keep the info about the fossil “under your hat”, and your husband said he thought a “bigger hat” was needed.

Yes, Tom got a bigger hat…a ten gallon cowboy hat …and we were able to keep the site a secret. In the summer of 1989, Tom and I led Pat Leiggi and Ken Carpenter from MOR along with a US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) representative to the site. Pat and Ken explored and decided there may be more of the skeleton embedded there. It must have taken some time to get the proper government approvals completed and time to gather enough financial resources for MOR to send a field crew later that summer. The excavation was started in the summer of 1989 and was completed in 1990.

4. Do you want to comment on your feelings or any surprises you experienced throughout those years, from discovery to full excavation?

It has been a wonderful learning experience for our entire family. We have met (and continue to meet) wonderfully interesting people, have been interviewed by CBS This Morning with Paula Zahn, numerous newspapers and magazines, were in a PBS/NOVA documentary as well as other documentaries, and even a family trip to Los Angeles to appear on a game show “To Tell the Truth”!

5. Have you and your family visited the T. Rex at MOR over the years? Were you already a dinosaur-fan or did the discovery prompt you to learn more about them?

Yes, our family visits MOR frequently whenever we are in Bozeman. We have been witness to MOR developing from a small building in 1988 to the world-class museum that it is today.

6. Were you surprised that the T-Rex is going to DC, and how do you feel about it?

We have mixed feelings about the Wankel T. Rex being moved to DC. We feel very honored that millions of people will be viewing our discovery and that our T. Rex will now be known as “The Nation’s T Rex”. The loan/lease agreement between the USACE and the Smithsonian is for 50 years. We hope that our T. Rex will be able to come home to Montana at the end of those 50 years.

7. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like people to know?

Twenty members of our extended family are making the trip to Washington DC. for the Wankel T. Rex reception events at the Smithsonian. What great memories for our entire family!

————-

I would like to extend a T. Rex-sized ‘Thank you!’ to Kathy Wankel, Sheldon McKamey, Dr. David Varricchio, Julie Price, Mark Robinson, and Kevin Ropp! What a great pleasure and honor!!

Thank you to Paul Rubenstein at USACE for informing me of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Public Law 111-011!

You can follow the fossil’s move to DC on Twitter: #trexroadtrip

Interested in supporting current fossil digs or paleontological research? Check your local museum and see how you can help!

Find out more about the Museum of the Rockies: http://museumoftherockies.org/

The fossil is moving to the Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH): https://www.mnh.si.edu/

More info on USACE, per Julie Price:

“USACE owns other fossils.

“Those fossils are managed by the local USACE District offices administering the lands from which they are discovered. These local USACE offices are assisted and provided with technical support by the Corps Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections Center (CMAC) in St. Louis.

“The Center which was created by USACE in 1994 is responsible for curation of archaeological materials, curation of associated documentation, collections management, collections management database development and special purpose design and construction requirements of curation facilities. The Center also assists other Army major commands, Department of Defense services and agencies, and other federal, state, and local government agencies.

More information is available here http://www.mvs.usace.army.mil/Missions/CentersofExpertise/CurationMgmtofArchaeologicalCollections.aspx”

Fossil Festival and activities – Museum of the Rockies

The Museum of the Rockies–located in Bozeman, Montana–has an enormous collection of fossils.  It is also home to Jack Horner, known even to those who do not follow paleontology as the consultant to the “Jurassic Park” films (next movie potentially released in 2015).  When I connected with him earlier this year, the museum had, among many others, over 100 Triceratops fossils.

The Boston Museum of Science held an entire day of presentations by paleontologists in March 2013 called “Dinosaur Day“.  Two of those presentations were done by Jack Horner himself, and John Scannella, mentioned below.  It was a fascinating day, so I am a bit envious of those who live near Bozeman and are able to visit this museum regularly.

The Museum of the Rockies has been celebrating National Fossil Day since its inception in 2010. The Fossil Festival events they have planned are listed further below.

Currently, there is a lot of activity surrounding the Wankel T-Rex (so named for its discoverer, Kathy Wankel, in 1988), a fossil they are trying to move to the Smithsonian.

Nonetheless, Angie Weikert, Education & Public Programs Director, generously responded to some of my questions:

———————————————–

1. What events occur during National Fossil Day?

We host three different events to celebrate with the Fossil Fest only being one of them.  This is our second annual Fossil Fest to celebrate National Fossil Day.

Fossil Festival
Tuesday, October 15| 3:30 – 6:30pm | Free with Museum admission
Join MOR in celebrating National Fossil Day.  Children ages 5-12 can become a “Junior Paleontologist” and receive an official badge or certificate from the National Park Service by completing fossil activities.  Explore the ways that paleontologists work, learn about Earth’s history, ancient plants and animals, and discover how you can protect fossils through engaging hands-on activities.

AFTERSCHOOL PROGRAMS (GRADES K–5)

Digging Dinos
Monday, October 14 or Tuesday, October 15| 3:45 – 5:00pm| $10 for members, $15 for non-members
Get your hands dirty as you learn how a fossil finds its way from the ground to a museum display.  Play a role in preparing a real dinosaur bone. Wear clothes that can get dirty – this class is going to get messy!
Tours for Tots (3–5 years)
Tues & Thurs: 10-11am | Wed: 2-3pm | Free for members, $5 for non-members
This program continues our efforts to introduce little ones (ages 3 – 5) to the wonders of museum learning. Each program offers a chance to ask questions and explore with a hands-on activity. We offer the same program three times a month.  Pre-registration is not required unless you are a preschool group.*

Fantastic Fossils
October 15 – 17

2. What is the oldest fossil you have in your collection?

Trilobites from the Horseshoe Hills north of Manhattan, MT are approximately 355 million years old.

3. What is the smallest fossil you have in your collection? (I ask because so many of them are enormous!)

Algae and insects (mites) from Canyon Ferry, near Helena, MT (approximately 25 million years old)

4. Are there any anecdotes about fossils, the museum or reactions to your collection that you would like to share?

MOR’s Paleontology research is always making waves in the established understanding of dinosaurs.  Several years ago our research found that two different dinosaurs were actually just different ages of the same species.  John Scannella’s research determined that Torosaurus was the adult stage of Triceratops.  Not long after John’s research was published, he received a letter from the mother of a 5 year old.  This mother was angry with John because her 5 year old would not stop crying.  Torosaurus was the little boy’s favorite dinosaur.  He did not want Toro to be a Triceratops.  The mother asked John to change his mind about his Toro and Trike research.  He politely declined.

To see more info on events at the Museum of the Rockies, please visit their website: http://www.museumoftherockies.org/Calendar.aspx

For more information on John Scannella and his work: http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2010/09/torosaurus-is-triceratops-5-questions-for-paleontologist-john-scannella/

http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/msu-paleontologist-questions-traditional-views-of-triceratops-torosaurus/article_8ece1ff0-8f9a-11df-a582-001cc4c002e0.html

For a fascinating talk by Jack Horner of the theories behind Triceratops, please see his TED talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/jack_horner_shape_shifting_dinosaurs.html

For more information about the Wankel T-Rex and its transition, please see Meg Gannon’s piece from LiveScience: http://www.livescience.com/40218-government-shutdown-smithsonian-t-rex.html

Many, many thanks to Angie Weikert!!