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Hell Creek Fm (2007): Montana

'Overdoing the smile a bit, but it's hard not to with this great half-grown Triceratops parietal (part of the frill) found by Chance Taylor, the son of a local rancher.

Summer 2007 I worked for Jack Horner and the Museum of the Rockies in the Hell Creek Fm. My time was spent mixed between conducting stratigraphic work for my PhD, and helping excavate fossils.

The Hell Creek is well-known for its dinosaurs which include some of the most famous species: Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Pachycephalosaurus, and Ankylosaurus. these were some of the last dinosaurs to have lived (other than birds) as the top of the Hell Creek marks the KT boundary, at which the dinosaurs went extinct.

Unlike some field operations, the MOR does not charge for people to dig, and fossils are not subsequently sold. Volunteers pay nothing, and have their food costs covered. All specimens are collected for research purposes and are housed in a public repository. You won't see your hard work end up being sold for profit with us.

Details of how to volunteer for our field programme can be found by clicking here

A pretty typical exposure of an exploded Triceratops femur. 2 decades ago this might have been intact, but the years of rain and frost have taken their toll.

Hold onto your hats! High adventure as the dirt road plunges down into a creek (photo by Kathy).

The thrills and spills of meeting surly rattlesnakes.

Some horrible squealing in camp led us to this rabbit, caught by a bull snake. Bull snakes are harmless (uh... to humans!): it's the rattlesnakes you have to be wary of. We had at least 3 rattlers in camp 2007 (photo S.Keenan).

Lauren (left) picks at a sacrum, while Sarah records data on a Triceratops bonebed. Lee Hall, one of our crew chiefs for 2008 is applying PVA hardener to an exposed bone. This site was found by MOR graduate student Laura Wilson in 2006, and was excavated from 2006 and 2007.

Albie's site occurred about 20m below the K-T boundary, marked here by the "Z" coal

In Montana, the Hell Creek Fm spans from about 67 to 65 Ma and is capped by the KT boundary. The "z-coal" is one of the boundary markers that you can see easily in the field. Compared to the somber grey tones of the Hell Creek, the overlying Paleocene Fort Union Fm, has thicker organic-rich shales and coals with more yellowed sand and siltstones.

My work mainly concerns the sequence stratigraphy of the Hell Creek. Myself and John Scannella, another doctoral candidate at the MOR are integrating our projects, looking at biostratigraphy of the dinosaurs and other taxa.

The picture on the left shows "Albie's site". Sarah Keenan and myself were busy doing some stratigraphic work near the KT when we came across some bones poking out of a sandstone. We excavated a little, and found a few nice things. For her undergraduate project, Sarah was working on the taphonomy of one of our Triceratops sites.

This is the best bone that came out of Albie's site: a Tyrannosaurus tibia, about 80% complete.

"Albie's site" was named after a nearby ephemeral pond that was full of tadpoles. One of the tadpoles was completely white in colour so we named "him" Albie. The "dimpling" you can see at the pond bottom is made by tadpoles When the water gets too shallow. Similar marks are known from the fossil record

Given how hot and dry the Hell Creek is during the summer, you see a surprising number of amphibians, even during the heat of day. Mostly you find them in small groups in the ephemeral ponds . This leopard frog was hanging out with a dozen of his buddies, waiting for some careless bugs to visit his pool.

Next to field camp are a number of antique tractors. You might be surprised to learn that these all still work.
You might be even more surprised to see the Twitchells racing them round one of their nearby fields for their annual tractor race!


This is the nasal horn of "Lauren's trike": a partial disarticulated skull of a large Triceratops found by one our volunteers. The discovery of this specimen sparked a major dig where various parts of the skull were recovered, including a nice lower jaw full of teeth.

"Malorie's trike" found by another of our volunteers. We collected a number of disarticulated skulls in 2007: these are often more useful for research than articulated specimens

TV loves dinosaurs. Here, crew chief Liz Freedman (now Liz Fowler) reports on a new species of hadrosaur she is quarrying from the Judith River. We had TV crews and newspaper journalists out in Hell Creek too.

In this photo 2008 crew chief Becky Schaff digs around another Triceratops site, while being watched over by our robotic drone. This laser scanning radar (LIDAR) is being used to help map our quarries. I haven't seen any of the quarry scans themselves, but the technology certainly works very well at scanning outcrop for 3D reconstruction of facies associations: potentially extremely useful indeed for understanding the palaeoenvironments, and how they change over time.

Zzap! Camp takes a blasting from an electrical storm. These can be fun to watch, but if it rains too heavily we can be trapped in camp for a few days, waiting for the roads to dry out. Times like these, we catch up with data, watch movies, play cards, and try not to fall over in the slippy conditions.

Prof David Weishampel and myself check out the sad remains of a Triceratops frill

Our field operation gets regular visits from many distinguished researchers. There's a good chance to meet all sorts of people, which is great from a research perspective as there is always lots of time to discuss scientific hypotheses when you're hiking miles between sites. Some visitors include:

Mary Schweitzer often drops by looking for bones to chop up for her ground-breaking molecular studies;

Mark Goodwin and the Berkeley crew do alot of work in the Hell Creek too (check out Mark and Jack's paper on Triceratops ontogeny).

Mollusc expert Joe Hartman regularly leads his marauding army of clam people over from North Dakota.

Early in September we were called back into action to dig up another Triceratops: "Lon's trike". It was an intense 5 days of digging, but well worth it! In this photo you can see about half of the excavation: the frill to the right, and the face on the left has been broken apart. (John Scannella for scale)

A closeup shot of the nasals of Lon's trike. This salamander had crawled under one of our tarps during the night. We took this photo before moving him under a nice damp rock next to a nearby pond.

A summer spent digging will leave you buff and manly looking, like Brian Baziak: here seen brandishing a shovel with intent at the Lon's trike site.