Now that dinosaurs have been extinct for about 65 million years, it is finally safe for amateur paleontologists to assist the professionals in unearthing the bones of these sometimes flesh-eating creatures.
If seeing the new Dinoroarus exhibit (opening April 17) at the St. Louis Zoo or the new Jurassic Quest drive-thru experience at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre (April 9-25) has inspired you or your kids, there are many opportunities for further exploration. Several organizations allow children and adults to participate alongside paleontologists uncovering the ancient fossils. Adventures last from half-day outings to weeklong digs, with on-site instructions on how to excavate “bone beds” included.
What follows are several programs that will be operating this summer and that welcome amateur paleontologists.
Belle Fourche, South Dakota; paleoadventures.com
In remote valleys of the badlands of South Dakota, Walter Stein has been taking adults and kids ages 10 and up on daylong dinosaur digs since 2005. A professional vertebrate paleontologist and dinosaur hunter, he has discovered, excavated or prepared more than 30 complete dinosaur skeletons.
Groups usually consist of 12 people, accompanied by Stein and several educators who provide guidance throughout the dig. “We get a lot of families with kids who want to be professional paleontologists,” he says, “but we are not a ‘hack and slash’ event. We ensure there is a balance of professionalism and fun. Sometimes after two hours it is evident a child has had enough, while others have only increased their ambition to make paleontology a career.”
All tools and training are provided, and amateur paleontologists are allowed to keep some of the common fossils uncovered. “Scientifically significant” pieces are retained for museums.
Some of the more significant finds come from Pachycephalosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Struthiomimus, Anzu, Dakotaraptor and Thescelosaurus dinosaurs.
Stein advises his “dig book” fills up fast. A dig commences at 8 a.m. on private ranches in the area, and continues for 12 hours. For a one-day dig prices are $175 for an adult and $150 per child, or $550 per day for a family of four.
Two Medicine Dinosaur Center
Bynum, Montana; tmdinosaurcenter.org
Since its establishment in 1995, the Montana Dinosaur Center has drawn more than 5,000 yearly visitors to remote north central Montana. Most come to tour the displays, which include the first baby dinosaur bones collected in North America.
“About 500 people sign up each summer to do an actual dig,” reports Cory Coverdell, director of the center since 2010. “Amateur paleontologists are evenly divided between seniors, adults and children. Group sizes vary between five to 10 people.”
Most likely finds include the bones of duck-billed dinosaurs like the Edmontosaurus, which were abundant in the area. A dinosaur with flat, duck-bill shaped bones for their snouts, they only ate plants.
Digs are in the Judith River Formation, a fossil-bearing geologic formation about 80 million years old.
Fossils are collected with the intent of scientific research and go straight into the center’s collections room.
Half-day “dig visits” are $85 but involve no digging. Full day digs are $185. Three-day digs are $360, and five-day digs are $510.
Wyoming Dinosaur Center
Thermopolis, Wyoming; wyomingdinosaurcenter.org
Amateur paleontologists work on the Morrison Formation, which spreads across the western U.S. and dates back about 150 million years. More than 10,000 bones have been found since the program started, mostly from Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and Apatosaurus dinosaurs. “Some sites are still being dug that date to 1993,” says Levi Shinkle, the collections manager at the site.
“It is an amazing thrill when you uncover something that was living and has not been seen in hundreds of millions of years, or ever by a human,” says Shinkle. “We look for bones that have eroded out of a hillside and fallen to the ground, and then excavate into the hillside above where the bones were found.”
Any bone found is registered with the Dinosaur Center, including the name of the finder and the exact location it was excavated.
Three-hour digs are $50, and one-day digs are $150. The $650 five-day Dinosaur Academy program for grades 9-12 includes classroom instruction as well as field exploration, excavation and laboratory techniques for preserving and displaying fossils.
Mesalands Community College
Tucumcari, New Mexico; mesalands.edu/paleontology
This small community college offers a “big” course in hands-on paleontology. The program is under the tutelage of Dr. Axel Hungerbuehler, Mesalands faculty member and curator of the college’s Dinosaur Museum and Natural Sciences Laboratory.
Classes are held daily for five days. Morning digs are about an hour from the college campus in the Redonda Formation, which the course description says dates “from 200 million years ago during the late Triassic Period.” Afternoon classes at the museum record pertinent data of excavated finds from the morning, and instruction on the cleaning and assembling finds in the lab.
The area of exploration is one of only a few locations in the Southwest that has yielded abundant remains of vertebrates from the Late Triassic period. Sometimes referred to as the “Dawn of the Age of Dinosaurs,” it took place just before a mass extinction wiped out several lineages of the then dominant reptiles, allowing for the subsequent 130-million-year reign of the dinosaurs.
Hungerbuehler reports previous field class participants have recovered numerous fossils, including skulls of the crocodile-like phytosaur Redondasaurus.
Customized digs for organized groups may also be arranged.
The five-day program is $750 but does not include lodging, which is abundant in Tucumcari.
If you seek to add a world adventure in conjunction with a dinosaur adventure, any of three small group, adult-only, explorations offered by the firm Odyssey Traveller could be the perfect match. Field trips include 6 to 12 adults in Argentina, China and Mongolia, and are between 14 and 21 days in duration.
The 16-day “Dinosaurs of the Gobi” tour in Mongolia includes 10 days tent camping and fossil hunting on a paleontological dig in the fossil-rich Tugrigiin Shiree. Discovered by Mongolian scientists in the late 1950s, the location is known as the site of the “Fighting Dinosaurs” fossil of a Protoceratops and a Velociraptor locked in combat.
While Argentina and China tours do not offer dig options for fossils, the trips include almost daily visits to the most noteworthy dinosaur discovery sites and museums throughout each nation.
Trips begin at $7,000 per person.
During the pandemic it is important to visit each website to determine what is currently being offered. While each location plans active programs in 2021, the ever-changing scope of the pandemic can cause programs to be canceled or limited.
Finding dinosaurs near St. Louis
Missouri and Illinois got shortchanged on dinosaur fossils. However, teeth and bones were discovered in the southern Ozarks in Bollinger County, Missouri, in 1942 and were later identified as a plant eating, duck-billed dinosaur.
The discovery, now known as the Chronister Dinosaur Site (bcmnh.org/exhibits/dinosaurs/,) eventually led to Missouri naming the Hypsibema missouriense the official Missouri dinosaur in 2004. With the title, Missouri became one of few states with a dinosaur mascot.
Also, the St. Louis Science Center (slsc.org) has a life-size display of a 20-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex eyeing an unlucky Triceratops as its next meal. Nearby windows into a lab allow visitors to see paleontologists carefully preparing actual dinosaur bones for display.
Just outside St. Louis near Imperial at the Mastodon State Historic Site (mostateparks.com/park/mastodon-state-historic-site,) the Kimmswick Bone Bed is an important archaeological and paleontological site dating back 10,000 years. Several American mastodon skeletons were found here, evidence that the huge, hairy elephant-like creature roamed Missouri and Illinois.
The state site is also where arrowheads found next to the beasts proved humans co-existed with the animal. The site also displays ancient artifacts and fossils, and an impressive full-scale replica of a mastodon skeleton.