Destination Science: Hunting Dinosaurs With Jack Horner

Exploring with Horner is part rugged outdoor workout, part evolutionary adventure, which helps explain why some 40 people trek to this remote part of Montana each summer to join him on his fossil hunts.

By Boonsri Dickinson|Saturday, February 06, 2010
RELATED TAGS: DINOSAURS, FOSSILS

Hell Creek, Montana, USA
Where the Dinosaurs Are

Paleontologist Jack Horner strides swiftly across the mountainous terrain overlooking Montana’s Hell Creek Formation. He knows these rugged hills well, having spent the past 11 years here unearthing the remains of Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and various duck-billed dinosaurs. On this hot summer morning, he is guiding four women under an unrelenting sun—initially along the main trail, then through ravines and down a steep gully. The group comes upon a patch of bones protruding from the clay, and Horner casts an expert eye. “Juvenile triceratops,” he says after a brief examination.

Exploring with Horner is part rugged outdoor workout, part evolutionary adventure, which helps explain why some 40 people trek to this remote part of Montana each summer to join him on his fossil hunts. This year’s team—mostly twentysomethings dressed in dinosaur T-shirts or sporting dino tattoos—has set up camp on a private ranch about an hour outside the town of Jordan (population 364). Many of the young fossil hunters are Horner’s students from Montana State University, who spend the summer here as crew chiefs, teaching the less experienced how to survive these badlands. The rest are volunteers, chosen each year from more than 700 applicants for two- to three-week assignments in the field. Southern boys, retirees, European paleontology buffs, and curious college students are all represented.

Montana has been a hot spot for dinosaur diggers for more than a century. Hell Creek in particular, just north of Jordan in northeastern Montana, became famous when legendary paleontologist Barnum Brown excavated the first documented T. rex here in 1902. He collected literally tons of giant reptile bones by blasting these hills with dynamite. Then he shipped the fossils east using manpower, horse and carriage, and train.

Horner is far more meticulous, taking great care when removing the fossils and recording detailed site data for every find. Many of his discoveries are moved 300 miles southwest to the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman. As curator of the museum, Horner naturally has a lot of sway there; two of the twelve T. rexes he has unearthed are on display. The summer 2009 dig at Hell Creek is funded largely by a grant from the Smithsonian Institution. In return, if Horner turns up his 13th T. rex, the Smithsonian gets it.

Each day the fossil hunters rise early, then endure 100-degree heat, rattlesnakes, and strong winds while using hammers, ice picks, and even dental instruments to clear dirt and expose bones. It is midsummer, and Horner’s crew has already excavated 24 sites. Notable finds include both juvenile and adult triceratops bones and an enormous, intact duck-billed dinosaur—but so far, no T. rex. Maybe they will have better luck next year. To join MOR’s digs, contact them to see if you qualify (406-994-DINO, www.museumoftherockies.org).

Horner’s digs are not the only dinosaur game in town. If your trip involves a minivan full of kids, you might want to book a much easier daylong tour of the badlands with the nearby PaleoWorld Research Foundation (941-473-9511, www.paleoworld.org). Young paleontologists and tour guides lead day trips through the hills, where you can pick up tools on-site and begin chipping away at the rock. Little bones near the surface on the main trail might point you to caches of larger, buried ones.

If you are seeking a crash course in dinosaur science, Paleotrek may be more your cup of tea. Ron Giesler, director of the program at the St. Louis Science Center, leads two weeklong trips to Jordan each June. Participants spend days on full-time digs, and at night there are educational programs, including lectures by paleontologists and geologists at a local ranch. In your free time, you can ride horses and dine with bona fide cowboys. If this is the trek for you, contact Giesler (314-289-4429, rgiesler@slsc.org).


While You're There

The Garfield County Museum, (garfieldcounty.com/museum.html), open daily between June 1 and Labor Day, is chock-full of all things dino. Or break away and ride horses cowboy style at Sand Creek Clydesdales Ranch (east of Jordan on Highway 200; 406-557-2865 or www.sandcreekclydesdales.net). If your stomach is grumbling, dine at the Hilltop Café (junction of Mt. Hwy. 59 and Hwy. 200, 406-557-6287). Then unwind and mingle to the sounds of country music at the Hell Creek Bar (Main St., 406-557-2302). Need a place to flop down? Most dino diggers choose the Garfield Hotel ($40 nightly; 406-557-6215 or garfield@midrivers.com), or try Fellman’s Motel—you can’t miss the colorful triceratops in the parking lot (406-557-2209 or fellmansmotel.com).


Dinosaurs: Can You Dig It?

Hell Creek is not the only place to get your dino fix. Some other options:

Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs, Glendive, MT  The Baisch family offers daily excavations on their 8,500-acre ranch, which is full of Cretaceous dinosaur fossils. (406-365-4133, www.dailydinosaurdigs.com)

Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey, Fruita, CO  One- and five-day trips take families from the museum to a dinosaur dig. The longer version can include white-water rafting. (888-488-DINO, ext. 212, www.museumofwesternco.com)

Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, WY  After a 15-minute ride, families step onto the Warm Springs Ranch to visit a dinosaur site from the Late Jurassic. (307-864-2997, www.wyodino.org)

Pioneer Trails Regional Museum, Bowman, ND  Book a day tour to an active dinosaur site, or enroll for a week in the Summer Field School program. All bones you dig up belong to the museum. (701-523-3625; www.ptrm.org)

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh  This classic collection of dinosaurs—including Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, and T. rex—was recently updated with realistic poses and an environmentally correct setting. (412-622-3131, www.carnegiemnh.org)

American Museum of Natural History, New York City  Visit the two famous dinosaur halls, part of an amazing fossil collection arranged according to evolutionary relationships. You can even sign up the kids for a sleepover. (212-769-5100, www.amnh.org)

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