(KT boundary refers to the transition from the Cretaceous period to the Paleogene period. “Below KT” rocks where dinosaurs have been found in eastern Montana are between 65 and 68 million years old.)
For one of the biggest states with the fewest people, Montana has had its moments in history, from the gold rush and vigilante days to its starring roles in some pretty good movies. But in a millennial sense, its lasting legacy may not be found in the shining mountains of Glacier or the blue-ribbon trout streams around the Gallatin as much as in a forlorn north-central corner of the state called Garfield County, once a river where dinosaurs died.
With a perfect combination of geologic and cultural conditions, silt-bearing areas in Garfield County have surrendered messages from 65 million years ago in the pre-HTML formats of Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops and duckbill dinosaurs.
It was also a perfect combination of circumstances that led Jack Horner of Shelby, Mont. to become a star paleontologist with an innate ability to find dinos and the savvy to use the mass media to communicate the wonders they teach us about life.
In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell discusses equations of social and cultural advantages, hard work and just plain luck that can lead some people to success and others to fail to reach their potential. Garfield County, Mont. is the ultimate outlier, and so is Jack Horner.
Geologic characteristics created the environment that preserved dinosaurs for millions of years. As Horner, Montana state paleontologist, Montana State University (MSU) professor, Museum of the Rockies curator and Hollywood consultant says, “you find dinosaurs where the rocks are the right age and where there is more erosion than vegetation.” At one time dinosaurs lived in Paris, Atlanta and San Francisco. But over time the dinosaurs and the rocks that encased them weathered away.
Garfield County is a sweep of badlands, a romantic term that really means eroded ground. And hardly anyone lives there.
It is the third least-populated county in the U.S., outside of Alaska. It is also one of the most Republican counties, giving over 83 percent of its votes to John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. (This is just an interesting fact; no correlation with dinosaurs intended). Its county seat, Jordan, was a regular feature on CNN during a 1996 stand-off between the Montana Freemen, a Christian Patriot movement, and the FBI, just outside town.
Named for President James A. Garfield when it was created in 1919, Garfield County was visited by Lewis and Clark on both their westward and eastward expeditions, in 1805 and 1806, and by Chief Sitting Bull while his band of Sioux was being pursued by U.S. Army Col. Nelson Miles after the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.
Despite the ignominious role it played in the history of the early American West and later the check-kiting Freemen, Garfield County is best known for late Cretaceous period celebrities: Tyrannosaurus Rex (in the celeb spirit of JLo and LLKoolJ, better known as ‘TRex’), Triceratops and the duckbill Edmontosaurus. These dinosaurs roamed north-central Montana between 65 to 68 million years ago when eastern Montana was a flat coastal plain sandwiched between the ancestral Rockies to the west and an inland ocean to the east. The silty soil in the area known as the “Hell Creek formation” is perfectly suited to preserving vertebrate fossils, sometimes in the form of intact dinosaurs. Hell Creek has yielded more than a dozen T Rex’s. The first was discovered in 1903 by Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History.
Various expeditions, mostly launched from the ivy halls of east coast academia, combed Garfield County in search of dinosaurs during the 20th century, but it wasn’t until Horner started climbing the canyons of Hell Creek in the 1990s that the world took note of Montana’s great bone yard.
Looking for T Rex
From a dusty pickup that sports a “JREX” Montana license plate and the familiar profile of T Rex on its doors, Horner leads a crew of paleo acolytes who have come from all over the world to spend a summer in Garfield County living in tents, digging in dirt and killing rattlesnakes. They are beckoned by the knowledge to be revealed in prehistoric bone fibers, as well as the chance to be in on the next big discovery. The Smithsonian Institute has offered a $1 million contract to MSU to find a T Rex, and the hunt is on. There are half a dozen of the mighty meat-eating dino skeletons in Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies, but not a one in the nation’s capital.
Holly Woodward, a doctoral student at MSU with long black braids, could be a model in a Patagonia catalogue. While she pursues her studies in bone histology, looking at how dinosaurs grew, Holly is enjoying her third summer working on Horner’s crew of 50 volunteers and students in Garfield County.
“I really like sleeping in a tent, seeing the stars and hearing the coyotes,” she said.
While growing up in Czechoslovakia, Vladimir Socha became fascinated with dinosaurs. Watching TV documentaries on Horner’s discoveries, as well as “Jurassic Park,” convinced Vladimir that one day he would find his way here. Now a doctoral student in Prague who has written a book on dinosaurs, Vladimir and three fellow students worked hard to raise the money to fly from Prague to Billings and spend a summer on Horner’s crew.
“This is the greatest area in the world for finding dinosaurs,” he said about the area that includes Hell Creek and a current dig site, Snap Creek. “It is amazing to see fossils every where. There are no dinosaurs in Czechoslavkia. One femur bone from an iguanodontian dinosaur was found, that’s it.”
While the dig crew comprises many nationalities, it also has its share of mature paleophiles.
David Jenkins is a retired Honeywell engineer from Kingsland, Ariz. Jenkins’ life-long fascination with geology led him to the Museum of the Rockies where he bumped into Horner in the Hall of Horns and Teeth. Jenkins’ casual comment about volunteering on a dig became a three-week stint at Snap Creek, cooking eggs for the crew and participating in the duckbill excavation.
In a way, Jenkins epitomizes the Baby Boomers’ new definition of “retirement”.
“Our generation doesn’t want to be boxed in,” he said. “We’re more fit, and we can do things like this—learn and be active.”
Another “retiree” on the crew, Warwick Fowler, father of paleontology student Denver Fowler, not only volunteered to help with chores and excavation, but discovered a duckbill dinosaur at Snap Creek in July.
Other crew members include MSU students such as Nathan Carroll of Ekalaka, Mont., who is the camp snake killer. Rattlers abound around the camp, and Nathan, or “Nate”, is snake hit man and cook– grilled rattlesnake covered in barbeque sauce has become a choice appetizer. Horner recruited Nate for MSU after he won the National Science Fair some years back with an exhibit on T Rex’s bite.
“I happened to be near Ekalaka and knew about his science fair award,” said Horner. “I found his house and found Nate out on his family’s tractor bailing hay. He pulled up and commented that I looked just like Jack Horner.”
If you live in Montana long enough, you learn to look at things in a different way. You may be able to spot a bull elk atop a mountain ridge five miles away, or a trout docked just beneath the surface of a river. You get “guide eyes”—an acute awareness of the natural environment.
Jack Horner has guide eyes. More than that, he has guide eyes that let him see backwards—tens of millions of years in time.
Following Horner through Hell Creek is like trying to keep up with a scent hound on a blood trail. Students refer to prospecting forays with Horner as “death marches”. He powers up the Cretaceous cliffs and down the gullies at a pace that leaves us wheezing in his wake.
Hell Creek is aptly named. A beating sun casts reflected heat off the white faces of looming cliffs. Rattlers complain from the sidelines. Prickly brush tears your ankles and legs. There really aren’t any trails and it all looks the same—just like it has forever.
We are not aiming to spot weathered T Rex bones protruding from the cliffside as much as to keep up with Horner and NOT get lost in the badlands, when he stops abruptly, almost with a point.
A pile of shards lying on the ground at his feet appears to be just that—a pile of shards.
“It’s a juvenile triceratops,” he says.
Maybe it was the heat or the bright sunlight, but at that moment the pile of shards knitted together to become a three-foot long skull casing accented at the top by a pinkish baby horn, curving backward.
Horner, who is in his 60s, says he’ll never retire. One thing that looking at 65 million year old bones will do is make you aware of your own mortal limits. When asked who will take his place, Horner said that an endowment has been set up at the Museum of the Rockies.
“The university regents set up a paleontology degree program at MSU, and there is no other program like this. The students at MSU and the students participating in the summer field work are among the best in the world. David Vericchio, who was originally one of my grad student and is now a professor here at MSU, is a highly respected paleontologist.”
Verrichio is a geology professor at MSU and has established his reputation studying dinosaur behavior.
Thanks to events that occurred during the Cretaceous period in north-central Montana, the fact that the right age rocks are exposed at the surface of the ground in eastern Montana, and that Jack Horner has had an uncanny ability to find dinosaurs since he was eight years old and understands how to make them seem alive to kids and retired engineers alike– thanks to this unique equation, Montana is teaching people all over the world about our pre-historic past and how it helps us understand who we are now.
Sure the Museum of the Rockies has a world-class collection of fossils. But more than an outstanding exhibit of bones and teeth, Horner’s real legacy is seen in Nate the science fair winner from Ekalaka, Holly who loves to hear coyotes howl at night and David who is giving new meaning to “retirement”.