Dinosaur Fossil Hunting Update! The Middle Tennessee Museum of Natural History

Hello, my name is Alan Brown, I am a Geologist, Paleontologist, museum founder and director, college instructor and today, blogger. I plan to write on geology, paleontology and the museum. The museum is Earth Experience the Middle Tennessee Museum of Natural History in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and has been open for almost 3 years, it is my passion and takes almost all my free time.  The one exception is every July when I travel to Montana to dig up fossil dinosaur bones. Many people have asked what it is like out in Montana and what is the process for finding and digging up the bones. Here is a recap of this year’s Montana adventures.

July 5 – I left middle Tennessee for Montana, it is about 1,500 miles. I have been going to Montana every summer for the last 10 years. Digging up dinosaur bones is a labor of love, the land is very rugged and remote, it can be extremely hot, sometimes we have to deal with thunderstorms, rattlesnakes, impassable roads and very strict collecting laws. The most difficult part of digging dinosaurs is finding a property willing to let us to dig. Digging a dinosaur on federal land is against the law and can result in jail time and big fines. So our only option is private land, but many land owners do not want people on their land or they want a lot of money to lease the fossil rights. I am very lucky in that my paleontology mentor, Jerry, had already established a relationship with a ranch and I was able to tag along and develop my own relationship with them. The ranch is owned by the Baisch family and Jerry first got on the ranch through Make-a-Wish. He was looking for a place to take a young boy who wanted to dig dinosaurs as his wish and the ranch owner contacted Jerry and told him to use their ranch. They have conducted 9 wishes on the ranch and I was able to help on the latest one, an amazing experience.

My truck in its natural habitat, the Baisch ranch. Yes it is a long drive.

July 7 – I arrived in Glendive Montana and set up at the cabins. The first years I went we camped the entire time but 4 years ago we started renting cabins in the nearby Makoshika State park. The cabins consist of a main cabin with full kitchen and living room, a bathhouse with multiple showers and 8 individual bunk cabins. The cabins have allowed us to have people join us on the digs. After setting up I went to the ranch and met with the patriarch of the ranch, Marge, to discuss where we could look around on the ranch. The Baisch family lets other people dig on the ranch so I did not want to encroach on land someone else was using. This year was the first time I was without my mentor Jerry because he was in a different part of Montana helping out a small museum with a big molding and casting project.

Cabins in Makoshika state park

July 8 – The rest of the crew arrived. This year I was accompanied by my dad (Dale), his cousin (Bill), three volunteers from the museum, Roxanne, Novella, and James and Novella’s mother Corina came as camp cook. Novella had been with me before but it was everyone else’s first time.

July 9 – Dale, Bill and I left early to the ranch. Novella, James and Roxanne arrived very late so I let them sleep in. First I showed Dale and Bill an area with lots of petrified wood. The petrified wood is extremely common on the ranch and it varies from looking like a tree that just fell yesterday to colorful agate filled rocks you might never think was wood. Then we went to the area of the ranch Marge said I should go. It takes a lot of walking to hunt for dinosaur bones. Many people ask how I know where to dig, basically you walk until you find something and that’s where you dig. We walked up and down and around steep hills and valleys. We found pieces of broken dinosaur bone and a few pieces of fossil turtle shell. Turtles are the most common vertebrate animal fossil on the ranch.

Dale and Bill looking for fossils
Bill looking for petrified wood

July 10 – The full crew headed out to the ranch and continued exploring. After several hours of looking we found some dinosaur bones. We found two piles of small pieces of dinosaur bone that were once complete bones. Once dinosaur bone is exposed at the surface it starts to break apart from rain, wind and freezing. What we hope to find is just a little part of a bone exposed and the rest buried. We found one bone sticking out of the ground but as I dug down it ended just below the surface. Finally, the last bone we started digging on continued underground. By this time is was hot and the crew was tired so we called it a day.

A weathered dinosaur bone, nothing left but scraps.
A bone partially buried, a good find

July 11 – Full crew went back out to the dinosaur bone from yesterday. This time we brought materials to make a jacket. A jacket is a protective cover over the bone so it can be transported safely. The bone appears to be an ilium, part of the hip, from a medium sized Edmontosaurus. I say appears because often after the bone is cleaned we find out it is not what we thought. The jacket is made out of plaster bandages, it is similar to a cast doctors use for broken bones. We ran out of bandages and called it a day. Novella and James left for Wyoming and South Dakota.

Bill, Dale and Roxanne jacketing the bone

July 12 – The road out of the state park was closed for construction so we were stuck. On the bright side we had half the state park to ourselves and we spent the day exploring. Lots of great scenery pictures were taken by everyone.

Bill and Dale sightseeing in the park

July 13 – Dale, Bill, Roxanne and I put the final layer on the jacket and spend the time waiting for the plaster to set looking for more bones but found nothing. I carried the bone back to the truck. It was long and heavy and it was a lot of rough terrain. I was completely spent by the time I got to the truck so we headed back to the cabins.

Dale and Roxanne with the collected bone

July 14 – We were a tired crew and the forecasted high for the day was 105 so we took a day off to go sightseeing. Corina joined us and we drove to Medora, North Dakota. It is the entrance to Teddy Roosevelt National Park and they have souvenir shops and restaurants. We bought souvenirs and took a 36-mile loop drive through the park. We saw Buffalo, wild horses and prairie dogs, everyone enjoyed the day.

Buffalo in Teddy Roosevelt National Park

July 15 – Dale, Bill, Roxanne and I headed back to the ranch. I took them to an area to collect petrified wood and then to a microsite. A microsite is an area where we often find small fossils. It was a point bar or gravel bar in a stream during the time of the dinosaurs. In the gravel we find fossil teeth, small bones, seed pods, pine cones and fish scales. Gar fish scales are common at this particular site and everyone found a scale. My best find was a small meat eating dinosaur tooth. After more exploring we found a pile of broken bone, I think it is a vertebrae and I might be able to piece it together.

July 16 – Crew heads home, I do laundry.

July 17 – I go out on the ranch with Marge and she shows me several sites where she found dinosaur bones. I am pretty good at reading maps and she wanted to know if the bones were on her property or not. Properties are often defined by 1 square mile sections and it can be hard to know where property lines run. Often there is no fence or landmark to determine where the property line is. Unfortunately, several bones were on federal land and we could only look at them. However, we did find 2 good sites on her land including the biggest rib I have ever seen.

July 18 – Last day in the cabins so I cleaned and packed up. The plan is to camp out at the ranch after today.

July 19 – Heavy rains early in the morning. To get to the areas of the ranch we are digging we have to cross a creek. Normally the creek has 6-10 inches of water but it had 4 feet of water and was three times wider than usual. It looked doubtful that I would get to do any field work for several days so I decide to head for home.

So that sums up the 2017 Montana field season for me. Every year is different but the basic process for finding and recovering the dinosaur bones is the same every year. The work on the dinosaur bones has just begun, it will take months of work at the museum in the lab cleaning and gluing the bones back together to get them ready for study and display. I am already thinking about next year’s trip.

Roxanne looking for fossils
The struthiomimus skeleton that we have a cast of at the museum was found here.
There are some great sunsets in Montana.

Please be sure to support the Middle Tennessee Museum of Natural History: The Earth Experience by stopping by to make a visit! To learn more about the museum, be sure to read our previous POST to get a sneak peak at what you’ll see!

Also, November 5, 2017 at 2pm – 6pm The Earth Experience is holding it’s NaturALE Beerfest fundraiser so be sure to check that out! Tickets can be purchase through Eventbrite at this LINK so be sure to check it out!


1 Comment

  1. April 29, 2019 / 12:40 pm

    My son just started a project at ORNL. I plan to visit him this year and suggested we take a drive and make an effort to stop at your museum. My son and I took a great hike to The Wave a few years ago and were surprised to find dinosaur tracks. We hired a guide who new the area and it made the trip much more worthwhile. Guess after all those many years of dinosaur habitation there are quite a few reminders around. I enjoyed your blog from a couple years ago, but was disappointed to see the Beer Fest was also from 2017. Hoping you update your adventures! thanks for posting.

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