Two North Dakota museums are set to welcome some of the foremost dinosaur specimens in the region, one of which will be hauled out of a hole in Montana via helicopter on Saturday and delivered to Dickinson.
The city-run Dickinson Museum Center’s Badlands Dinosaur Museum is set to receive a 76 million-year-old tyrannosaur skeleton encased in a concretion. Paleontologists will clean up and remove the skeleton from the huge, hard lump of rock throughout the next two years in a public viewing lab.
“It’s a huge deal for Dickinson. It’s a real step forward for our museum. We’re really growing,” Curator Denver Fowler said. “It’s definitely one of the nicest dinosaurs you can see in this region.”
The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck on Saturday will unveil its updated Dakota the Dinomummy exhibit. The 67 million-year-old, mummified Edmontosaurus is returning to display at the State Museum, its permanent home.
The specimens are some of the finest to be shown in North Dakota, according to the paleontologists involved in their display.
The state is a fossil hotbed, with museums in Bismarck, Bowman and Dickinson dedicated to showcasing dinosaurs, many found in the fossil-rich Hell Creek Formation of south-central and southwestern North Dakota.
“It is a nice concentration of great paleo-museums that are well-supported by the public, and so that’s what makes all this possible, because if there’s not a place for these specimens to go, then the work doesn’t get done to go out and find them and collect them,” North Dakota Geologic Survey Senior Paleontologist and Curator Clint Boyd said.
‘Centerpiece for us’
In 2017, museum paleontologists found the tyrannosaur’s feet and ankles sticking out of a cliff on public land near Glasgow, Montana.
They dug into the site in 2018 and 2019, excavating protruding bones of the skeleton, which Fowler said lies curled on its side.
The creature fell into a river and was washed upon a river bank. Its belly burst from rotting, and its tail curled over its head, which pulled back, Fowler said.
The main block containing the skeleton measures 8 feet by 10 feet and weighs 9,000 to 13,000 pounds.
“We haven’t seen the head yet, but usually with these specimens that are all curled up like this, they’re usually quite intact,” Fowler said. The skeleton could be as long as 30 feet from nose to tail.
A Chinook helicopter from the Billings Flying Service will perform the heavy lift on Saturday. A flatbed trailer will transport the specimen to Dickinson for display at the museum, which is a federal repository for public-land fossils.
JE Dunn Construction in coming weeks will help the museum lift and flip the block so paleontologists can clean its underside.
“We’ve had other skeletons in these same blocks have skin preserved,” Fowler said. “We’re hopeful that this might have some actual skin as well, but we don’t know until we clean it up.”
Fowler said paleontologists have several means of cleaning and preparing the skeleton, such as air scribes, which are tools like a mini-jackhammer that vary in size, depending on the scope of work.
Workers also can use acid to weaken the rock, which Fowler said might be useful in delicate or rough-textured areas such as the skull or backbone.
Few other comparable tyrannosaur skeletons exist in museums, Fowler said. The skeleton is expected to be “one of the nicest tyrannosaurs, hopefully, that you can see in our region,” he said.
Paleontologists on Saturday also will be transporting a second tyrannosaur skeleton that isn’t as complete as the other but has nice skull bones, including jaws with teeth, Fowler said. The researchers have found four tyrannosaurs in the area.
“We really hit a really good area for these tyrannosaurs,” he said.
Several people have already expressed interest in studying the main specimen, he said.
The lifting operation costs $55,000-$60,000 and is covered by grants from the federal Bureau of Land Management, TC Energy and ConocoPhillips.
The museum, a top attraction for Dickinson, is on track to see about 19,000 visitors this year, the most since the city took over the dinosaur operation in 2015, according to Director Bob Fuhrman.
The tyrannosaur skeleton “is going to be a real centerpiece for us,” he said. He has visited the dig site, and he called the specimen “impressive, just as they were starting to work it out of the ground at that time.”
“They go out there every summer, and so it’s pretty exciting every year. There’s always the potential of something great coming back from the field,” Fuhrman said.
Most visitors stop at the museum while traveling to nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park or Glacier and Yellowstone parks, according to Dickinson Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Terri Thiel.
Fowler has been focused on the educational experience for visitors, detailing the process from finding to preparing specimens, she said.
The museum has “become a lot more of an educational center than what it had previously been,” Thiel said.
Dakota the Dinomummy
Dakota has been displayed previously at the State Museum, but it has been in the lab for three years as paleontologists have done more cleaning and preparation.
“There are areas that could not be seen before on Dakota that will be in this new exhibit,” Boyd said.
In 1999, teenager Tyler Lyson discovered the duck-billed dinosaur’s remains on his uncle’s ranch near Marmarth. The specimen was unearthed in 2004, and workers revealed the carcass from the rock in subsequent years.
The new Dakota exhibit will feature part of the specimen, taken apart where it was previously fractured, and placed in life position.
“We have the right arm from about the elbow all the way to the tips of the fingers, which is completely cleaned up, like three-dimensionally on all sides, and it’s sitting up in an elevated stand, so you can see all the way around it,” Boyd said. “It has all the skin, it’s got the fingernails, it looks like an arm sitting there on display.”
Previously, Dakota was lying down and wasn’t as well-cleaned as now.
“By comparison for people who are like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen Dakota before,’ it’s like, ‘No, you’ve never seen Dakota like this before,'” Boyd said. More information on the exhibit premiere is at bit.ly/3aCPFFa.
Dakota’s body block, from the hips to the neck, is still in the lab undergoing cleaning. It will be displayed in the future.
“This gets some really nice, beautiful pieces of Dakota back on display for people to see so they don’t have to wait for years for the whole thing to be finished,” Boyd said.
The museum is offering $5 tickets for behind-the-scenes tours to see the work ongoing on the body block. Tickets are available at bit.ly/2YPqBaZ.
Dakota contains fossilized skin, one of fewer than a dozen known specimens like it, Boyd said. Ongoing research is helping paleontologists understand how such preservation happens, he said.
The dino’s body sat out long enough after death that its skin dried against the bones and was buried and preserved.
Fowler said Dakota and the tyrannosaur are going to be “really nice, new things to see in North Dakota in terms of dinosaur fossils and other fossils.”
“I think it shows some of what our institution here in Dickinson, also the State Museum, is really doing,” he said.
Originally published by Bismark News