Finding a dinosaur today, the remains of a real one – not just the “Jurassic Park” variety – is an illusive pursuit.
Having a quarry that has been extinct for 65 million years doesn’t help, of course, unless you know where to look.
Concordia biology professor Dr. Ron Nellermoe not only knows where to look for dinosaurs, he’s eager to share his findings and ideas on dinosaur life. Nellermoe and groups of Concordia students have made some impressive discoveries in the search for answers on how dinosaurs lived and died. With interest in these ancient beasts being rekindled by a hit movie, Nellermoe’s findings and theories are especially timely and significant. Best of all, these discoveries can be seen right on campus.
Nellermoe and a crew of biology students have been working for the past four years near Lemmon, South Dakota, in the colorfully named Hell Creek formation, a rock strata dating back 65 million years to the late Cretaceous Period. This was the last age of the great reptiles. Redwood and fig trees towered over both the huge plant-eating and meat-eating dinosaurs that inhaled a balmy sub-tropical air as they foraged on lush green vegetation.
The evidence of this ancient scene has been recorded in fossils, and southwestern North Dakota, northwestern South Dakota, and eastern Montana is a treasure trove of fossils, arguably one of the richest deposits in the western states. Recent finds in the Hell Creek formation have uncovered fossils from Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Edmontosaurus and Ornithomimus, a virtual dinosaur hall of fame. Of the 13 dinosaur species thought to have roamed this region, excellent specimens of 10 – some unique to the world – have been uncovered and collected.
Nellermoe has found a nearly complete specimen of Edmontosaurus, a duck-billed herbivore, which he hopes to curate and display at Concordia.
But Nellermoe’s most valuable discovery is on display in the science center. It is a section of a Triceratops backbone containing many scars from the razor-sharp teeth of Tyrannosaurus rex. The specimen is the single best example yet discovered of the predatory and scavenger behavior of T-rex, clearly showing the great beast’s method of biting that previously had only been theorized.
At the dig near Lemmon, Nellermoe hopes to find evidence that supports his idea that the environment was becoming drier during the late Cretaceous Period and that dinosaurs were suffering from poor nutrition, literally starving to death as the tropical swamps dried up. The young and old plant-eating dinosaurs, like Triceratops and Edmontosaurus, were the first to die. Then, Nellermoe believes, the carnivorous dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex of “Jurassic Park” fame moved in and scavenged the weakened beasts.
“Our Triceratops specimen is one of the best examples in the world of this theory,” Nellermoe said. “It clearly shows the biting behavior of Tyrannosaurus rex.”
The sites where these specimens are found indicate the bones were scattered about and trampled on as the meat-eaters tore at the carcasses for their meals.
The bones beds near Lemmon also interest Nellermoe because he’s found deposits of disarticulated dinosaur bones that were probably carried off by a river then dumped like cordwood in an oxbow and quickly buried by silt, which preserved the bones.
“Our digs this past summer gathered evidence to explain these beds. Our site is different because all the bones of the dinosaurs were found together, relatively in one place,” Nellermoe said. “Usually when you find bone beds the bones are scattered about, which means once the dinosaur died it was quickly covered up and rapidly disarticulated.”
The work at the Lemmon site will help develop a paleo-ecology comparison between the two different bone beds from which a common scenario can be developed to explain how the dinosaurs died off.
Nellermoe thinks the bone beds he’s been studying indicate some sort of catastrophic environmental problem where the dinosaurs died and were quickly preserved intact.
“We collected samples of the sediment to find out what the dinosaurs were eating,” Nellermoe said. “We wanted to know what environment they were living in. Of particular importance to us is the age of the bones. Were these young or old dinosaurs? What was the age structure of this dinosaur group? When we find out, we’ll be able to better understand the starvation-thirst theory.”
Although Nellermoe would like to display his finds at Concordia as much as possible, the sheer size of dinosaur bones makes that nearly impossible for now. If there were a facility in the region, and the state of North Dakota, for example, has long discussed building a dinosaur museum, he would donate the specimens for permanent scientific research. Until then, Nellermoe anticipates sending material to the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University of Bozeman, which has both the space and staff necessary to properly curate and display the fossils.
Nellermoe’s interest in dinosaurs began after meeting the Rev. Ken Olson of Lewiston, Montana, at a Concordia homecoming. Olson is a well-known and respected amateur paleontologist and avid dinosaur collector. After Nellermoe found out that Olson had been collecting specimens in the very same region he had been visiting for 20 years with his annual geology class field trip, Nellermoe became intrigued with looking for dinosaur bone beds himself. Often working together, the two made their significant Triceratops discovery near Glendive, Montana, a few years ago.
“It’s the scientific theories that interest me, not so much the collecting,” Nellermoe said. “Still, there’s always the potential of finding something new. That’s what’s really neat about dinosaur hunting. Whenever you go into the field, there’s always the chance you could find a whole new species out there.”
Editor’s Note: Kristyn Voegele ’11, a paleontology grad student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, has spent her graduate years in the lab working with the Dreadnoughtus schrani, the largest known dinosaur. Her experience with Dr. Ron Nellermoe’s summer field digs helped her prepare for her graduate research.
Originally published in the Autumn 1993 Concordia Magazine