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University of North Dakota new temporary home for Edmontosaurus; school expanding paleontology program

Posted 12/04/23 (Mon)


One of North America's most famous animals recently embarked on a journey that was outside of its typical migratory patterns. But it was prepared. It had millions of years to rest before making the trip.

“We know Edmontosaurus moved around; there's actually pretty strong evidence that the species ... migrated north-south from more or less the Montana-Wyoming-North Dakota region up toward Alaska, and back and forth, maybe less so east-west," said Paul Ullmann, assistant professor of paleontology at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

Ullmann and a team made up of other paleontologists, engineers, students from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and high school students from Northern Cass School in the eastern North Dakota town of Hunter collected around 30 bones from an Edmontosaurus that had been lying dormant in eastern Montana until earlier this fall, when the fossils were taken to UND to be cleaned, assembled and studied. Eventually the dinosaur remains will go to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.

Getting the bones to Grand Forks was a process that had been years in the making.

The find

Steve Adamek, a geologist with Dakota Technologies out of Fargo, discovered the fossil in 2019, Ullmann said, but the COVID-19 pandemic kept Ullmann and the other paleontologists from returning the next year to commence their excavation.

When digging near the initial discovery resumed in 2021, Ullmann and his team were excited to find that many of the bones were in life position, reflecting the skeletal structure of the dinosaur during its lifetime.

"(We) study anatomy a lot, and you can certainly pick up the jumbled puzzle of bones and reassemble the skeleton, but now we know exactly where each one of those vertebrae went in sequence without having to reassemble them," he said.

The Edmontosaurus is one of the more common species in the Hell Creek Formation, a geological area spanning Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, according to Ullmann. Findings like these allow paleontologists to extend their research to broader areas. 

"We can do a lot of things with it that you might not be able to do if, say, this was the first specimen of a new species -- for instance some of the research plans I have for a graduate student working on this specimen involve looking at soft tissue preservation in the bones, seeing if there's original bone cells and blood vessels, original proteins there, which is a slightly destructive analysis, but we can do it on this specimen because we know so much about the Edmontosaurus already," he said.

The findings could give scientists a better understanding about how some extinct animals are related to one another, and the ways that geology can affect the preservation of fossils, Ullmann said.

"What do we see about the chemistry of the bones?" he said. "What do we see about how they've been altered through fossilization?"

But before any studying of the fossils could begin, the nearly 4,400 pounds of Edmontosaurus bones needed to be brought out from their original location, which was at the bottom of a 100-foot hill.

"Our permit doesn’t allow anything with wheels to go off road ... which meant that we needed to create a sled of plastic material and four-by-fours to then drag it up the hill rather than put it on something with wheels, so we used 500 feet of (cable) to hook it up with a pully system to a couple of trucks at the top of the hill," he said.

Four seasons of exploration, digging, and wrapping the bones in casing culminated in a 10-hour, nonstop effort to bring the Edmontosaurus up the hill. The rest of its journey, an over-500-mile road trip, was by comparison much less eventful, Ullmann said. 

"That was a truly remarkable endeavor," he said. 

Future fossils

These won't be the last fossils taken to the University of North Dakota.

The Hell Creek Formation is full of potential for many more discoveries, according to Ullmann, who said he has his eyes set on a Triceratops skull as a possible next excavation project.

“It’s so rich with dinosaur material, you’re guaranteed in a couple of weeks of searching out there, you’re going to find something; the question is if it will be 30 bones of one animal, or half of one bone that’s been mostly eroded, you never know,” he said.

The discoveries will play a role in the university's efforts to expand its paleontology program.

Ullmann is working on building curriculum for new paleontology courses with the goal of eventually developing a paleontology concentration in the geology major at UND.

An entry-level course on dinosaurs will be offered in the spring, and upper-level courses on paleontology are on their way as well.

Ullmann also plans to collaborate with the North Dakota Geological Survey on its popular public digs program -- an opportunity that draws hundreds from across North Dakota and beyond to assist state paleontologists in excavations every summer -- and expand educational outreach on North Dakota's natural history to schools across the state.

He said the chance to engage in digs gives students who are interested in a career in paleontology a leg up when applying for graduate school and other opportunities.

"(For) so many who are interested in paleontology, you decide when you’re 3 years old, 'I want to be a paleontologist' -- that was me," he said. "So many of us have that history where you go through that dinosaur phase when you’re a kid and you never leave it, it sticks with you for life.”