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Unforgettable moments in the Hell Creek formation

Jared C


(Note: I don't know why half of this is in bold, I wrote this in a google doc first and copy pasted it to here, and it defaults to bold without the ability to undo it. This tends to fluctuate. Easy to see though!)


"Dinosaurs are overrated", Mike teased to me. We were sitting together at the flooded dig site of our mosasaur in the early morning hours, having just finished a jam-packed but enjoyable conversation about his research and other matters related to paleo. Naturally, dinosaurs were brought up, as our schedule had to work around my upcoming internship to the Hell Creek formation.


"You're right" I chuckled back - yet we both knew otherwise. Our jabs were at the insane media attention that the Hell Creek mega fauna receive, not at the neglected fact that these animals were just that, animals. Mike at his core is a biologist, a naturalist even, studying mosasaurs and their evolution. I hoped that I would get a chance to really appreciate dinosaurs in that same naturalist-esque light in person. Dinosaurs are just different to dinosaur paleontologists, and I'm glad now that I got to immerse myself in that. 


The group I was meeting with was actually a duo - "Fossil Excavators" is a small non-profit with big research ambitions (based on some amazing material they've discovered) run by two awesome guys - Harrison Duran and Dr. Mike Kjelland. Some may know them from this discovery that circulated a couple years ago, of a Triceratops skull named "Alice" with an interesting brow horn deformity. 




So, while not an internship with a school, it was an internship nonetheless and I gained experience, inspiration, and friendships. As for friends, Harrison and two of the other interns, Dawson ( @Dawson Sensenig) and Piper, as well as our amazing photographer Brittany Nailon who took many of these photos I'll show later, deserve a special mention.



We spent the first few days scouting for new sites, and to good success. Mike came across the best of these new sites, which we since have dubbed "The Graveyard". It's a river wash deposit, so there's very little that's articulated but there is a great diversity of species. Better yet, the matrix is the polar opposite of the hard shales and limestones I'm used to here in Texas. In this deposit at least, it was like digging through a sand box (delightful!).

Here are some quick pics from that spot:


Just such a picture perfect insitu for this vert, sitting at the base of a hill among lots of other scattered bone:




This well preserved edmontosaur carpal that @Dawson Sensenig found



big ol' gar scale from Piper



I actually made fewer direct discoveries than expected (which is ok, we worked as a team and we're directed to a spot to dig so it's not like I'd be able to take much credit for finding something anyway :P ). I was however happy to find this (likely) Dromaeosaur claw


Though, it paled in comparison with the find 15 minutes earlier close by, from another intern (cameron) - this awesome theropod claw shown below, maybe from Anzu wyliei




A tiny tooth that we assume to be the ever enigmatic Paronychodon:




This Edmontosaurus metatarsal that Dawson spotted (though I'm holding it)



A stingray tooth I found, because of course I will find something aquatic here - never far from my roots!




A small, broken rex tooth spotted by our photographer Brittany and a dromaeosaur tooth:




More Edmontosaurus material - jaw pieces and a rib:




More edmontosaur materiel, this time from a different clay site - due to the more stable matrix, there was some articulation here, though just a few verts



There was also the usual assortment of leaves and ceratopsian teeth. One cool thing that stood out to me was this seed preserved in ironstone. 



There were a few rainy days, and one of them we spent in eastern montana on the bearpaw shale, collecting campanian invertebrates. The storms up there were hard and brief, full of orange lightning. I also include a photo I took below of one of those cloud bursts:



Our bearpaw formation cephalopods!



The ammonites found by our group above were exquisite, and I was particularly excited about the nautiloid. It was also a day of firsts, in that for the first time ever, I accepted a fossil into my collection (yes, we got to keep our finds that day!) that I didn't find myself. @Dawson Sensenig discovered the ammonite shown right before the nautiloid, and graciously insisted I keep it. How could I decline?




As a quick break from the fossils, I'll include some of the extant fauna of the hell creek we ran into, and some other shennanigans:


Beautiful prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) I encountered while scouting high up on one of the many buttes:




A gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer) I caught that may even be the same individual we initially discovered in our outhouse :heartylaugh:




And a constant dig companion in some spots:




In addition to the creepy crawlies, the landscape was one full of mule deer and pronghorn. I have a deep admiration and fascination for pronghorn, considering their vestigial speed from outrunning Miracinonyx. I had this idea that I would like to chase down/ follow a mule deer or pronghorn for as long as I could manage, as our ancestors did while persistence hunting. Needless to say my few attempts failed quickly - though I had sandals good for running, they were not good at guarding me from the cacti that flourish there. I was still pulling spines out of my feet two weeks later :P.


Dawson and I became fast friends that shared a lot in common, (besides just a love for paleo). I helped resurrect an interest in climbing he had while he helped inspire an interest in running in me. There's not much to climb in North Dakota, but we did find a boulder that offered some fun. Here's Dawson and I below:


(Dawson taking a moment to blink the sand from his eyes before trying the big move on this ridiculous little climb)



(Myself dangling immediately after the big move...with eyes full of sand). There was a rib 20 feet away around the corner here.


I also became great friends with our photographer, Brittany. Her goal is actually to primarily be a paleontology photographer, pretty cool. She also used both film and digital, and I'm particularly fond of the film shots (though I can't post all of them yet!)

(And I can't help from shouting her out.... if you need someone (or know someone who needs someone) to photograph geologists or paleontologists... she's your gal!). Here are a few of the photos she took that I was there for:


(Digging on the Edmontosaur rib)




Dawson and I shaking plaster covered hands, with Harry, who guided the process, in the background. 



An environment shot of the "Graveyard" on film



one of the days we were chased away by weather - that's me taking a photo of a butte in the distance




Another environment shot of the beautiful Hell creek strata, also on film. 




another film shot from Brittany of myself while scouting - I felt right at home on these big sandy hills... ample practice from the steep, unstable Ozan exposures back home!



Another film shot below of some of the crew:






This photo above was a cool memory. There was no reception, but at the airport, before I left,  I deliberately left a tab open with @Troodon's marvelous write-up on the forum about "The case for Nanotyrannus" (below). I opened it up to get to talk about it with the other interns, and Harry looked over us to see what the fuss was about. Seeing this, Brittany yelled "WAIT keep doing that! Don't stop!" and took this photo, as well as two others, as we talked over @Troodon's fantastic write up. 


EDIT: When I posted this (at 3 am) last night I completely forgot to include two other highlights!


1) On one of the rain days, we drove into the small town nearby and rented out a theater for $75 an hour, and watched two episodes of David Attenborough's "Prehistoric Planet". I was pleasantly surprised by this documentary, it was tastefully done and very engaging. The ammonite scene was so beautifully made that it may as well have brought a tear to my eye :P. If you haven't seen it, you should!

2) Our team had beers at a little diner with Robert DePalma and his team (from the Tanis site). It was cool to get to know those guys, considering their impressive position in the field of paleontology they hold at the moment. Tanis was in the same "neighborhood" as some of our sites! 



Before my conclusion, I just want to include the two CRAZY finds Harry made with Mike and the rest of the team right after I left:


While I was there, I was very keen to find mammal material. There's a very significant site that we were working on towards the end dubbed "Alexandria's library" (due to the wealth of rare specimens it has produced for the team in the past). I only got to be involved in working the site for a couple days, as the newer Graveyard site was able to be investigated thoroughly and efficiently in our time there.

The main day I spent working at Alexandria's library was spent with Dawson slamming away at ironstone capping a hill, so that we could get to the fossiliferous sands and clays below. We finished the job but didn't get a chance to actually investigate the fruits of our labors there. Upon returning to the newly revealed sands, Harry then finds a DIDELPHODON JAW!




As luck would have it, the big finds came in quickly after I left, with another amazing find that would've given me a heart attack (so it's probably for the best...)


...yeah. I was stunned when he texted me this. I'm so proud these guys.


And so that was our time there, and I'm influenced. Never have I felt so inspired and driven to the paleo goal as I do now.


There was a moment I had at the graveyard site that I will never forget. I was crouched, moving into a neighboring butte with a screw driver. I had my friends at my side, similarly driven and exceptionally knowledgeable, and each deeply focused on their task at hand. We were damp, as a sudden cloud burst caught us red handed an hour before. The sun was out again and the clouds were scattered but full of color and depth - the sort of beautiful sky you can expect in a waning afternoon after a strong storm.  


I looked out over the three buttes that dominated the sky line at this site, and finally settled a thought that I've been brooding on for months. I will fully commit to paleontology. This is what I want my life to be, and I'm willing to face the elephant in the room (money) if it means that I get to do what I was doing, right then and there, for the rest of my life. This is a life well lived.


Paleontology is a sacred science, one of deep wonder and a wide range of demanded skill. Not only is a paleontologist a multi-disciplinary academic, excelling at the very least in both geology and biology (while often proficient in chemistry and physics) - a paleontologist is also an explorer and adventurer, with dirt under his nails and probably an ache in his back :P. It's a gritty science that occupies two worlds. 


Not only that though. What strikes me is the sheer amount of totally untouched potential still locked away in the rocks. A modern biologist has to look hard to find something new, in a place usually isolated. You and I might walk into the greenbelt by our neighborhood and stand a plausible chance of discovering something either unnoticed or just flat out never seen before. That is something special. Being a paleontologist today is like being a naturalist at the turn of the 20th century. We have the entire world open to us. 


And so that was the 2022 Hell Creek expedition. I do have a closer appreciation for dinosaurs now, and I even have a few exciting ideas concerning them on the horizon...but I must say it's a pleasure to be back to this hallowed, marine deposited ground. I missed our big lizards and sharks.  


Onwards and upwards!


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Great trip report, Jared! Looks like you had a lot of fun, build some good friendships and made some lasting memories! :D

I remember the same feeling from the archaeological fieldwork projects I went on, although the environment in which you did yours is so much more inhospitable than ever one of the fieldwork projects I've participated on. I envy you the experience - though the creepy crowlies you encountered seem even worse than what we used to encounter on ours (though they were likely just about as deadly poisonous) ;)


I'm also happy to hear that you've made up your mind to get into palaeontology professionally and understand what this means: for, while one should indeed chase that what makes one happy in life, palaeontology will undoubtedly present you a lot of challenges to establish yourself in the field and certainly will never bring you riches other than what you bring back from the field by way of finds, friendships and memories :fistbump:

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Awesome trip report, Jared! It looks like you had a good time. I have always thought it would be cool to dig up fossils in the Hell Creek. 


Thank you for sharing! :)



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