Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hunting Dinosaurs on the American Prairie Reserve

With the critical details finalized and signed, I can finally reveal what my crew and I will be doing for this summer's fieldwork.

Starting July 1st, we will be prospecting for dinosaur fossils on the American Prairie Reserve: an enormous expanse of land in northeastern Montana, dedicated to restoring the prairie ecosystem to as close to its original condition as possible. The reserve stretches over approximately 305,000 acres of deeded and BLM- or state-leased land, sandwiched between Fort Peck Lake and the town of Malta, and is teeming with familiar inhabitants of the great American west, boasting herds of bison, elk, and antelope, accompanied by many of the smaller species such as prairie dogs, sharp-tailed grouse, and everyone's favorite: burrowing owls!

Icon of the great plains, the American Bison.
Image from APR

The burrowing owl Athene cunicularia looks slightly goofy with its long legs, but they are one of my favourite inhabitants of the prairie. In my previous fieldwork I was lucky enough to drive by a nest of these cute little guys every day. I hope we see some more this summer!
Image from APR, photo by Ellen Anderson

American Prairie Reserve is keen to see scientific studies conducted on the land and so invited us to set up a new paleontological initiative, surveying the reserve for research-significant fossils. Donors have generously provided funds for me to lead a team out on to the reserve for an initial two field seasons, adding an exciting new (and prehistoric!) dimension to our understanding of North America's continental ecosystems.

As you might imagine, American Prairie Reserve is mostly a vast expanse of prairie habitat dominated by sweeping grassy plains and lazy rounded hills, not the rocky badlands where we would typically look for dinosaur fossils. However, craggy outcrops of the Hell Creek Formation poke up through the prairie in places, and it is in these areas that my crew and I will be prospecting for new fossil localities.

Much of the APR is covered by prairie, some of which is populated by herds of American Bison.
Image from APR

Rocky outcrop on the APR, possibly not of the Hell Creek Formation, but you get the idea.
Image from APR, photo by Gib Myers

Hell Creek Formation - end of the dinosaurs

The Hell Creek Formation should be familiar to anyone interested in dinosaurs, as it is from the Hell Creek that famous species such as the horned dinosaur Triceratops and the enormous carnivore Tyrannosaurus have been found. Most famously the upper boundary of the Hell Creek Formation records the K-T mass extinction that saw the end of the age of dinosaurs. The fossils and geology surrounding the extinction horizon have been well-studied by teams of researchers over the past half-century or so, and continue to this day. However, we are going to be building on some recent fieldwork and research that focuses on the lower part of the Hell Creek Formation, which is most of what is exposed on the American Prairie Reserve. A paper that I recently coauthored with John Scannella, Mark Goodwin, and my PhD supervisor Jack Horner (Scannella et al., 2014; PNAS), showed that Triceratops evolves over the ~1.5 million years represented by the Hell Creek Formation. In the lower part of the Hell Creek Formation  we find Triceratops horridus, which possesses a small nose horn. In our paper we hypothesize that Triceratops horridus later evolved into Triceratops prorsus, which is only found in the upper part of the formation and possesses a large nose horn (with other more subtle differences). I would like to investigate further these kinds of changes between the lower and upper Hell Creek faunas. The first step is to get out and gather some data: finding new fossils.

Triceratops in the lower part of the Hell Creek Formation (bottom) have small nose horns, which evolved into large nose horns (top) shortly before the K-T boundary extinction.
Image from the scientific paper Scannella et al. 2014 (see below for full reference).

I can't begin to tell you how excited we are by all of this. Finding dinosaurs is pretty amazing anyway, but to do so surrounded by rich prairie teeming with wildlife is going to be something very special indeed. We are going to be reporting from the field to document this initial phase of scientific research, looking at all aspects of fieldwork such as finding and identifying fossils and camp life. We are hoping that the fossils we find can be exhibited locally at Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta (website, facebook), although Carter County Museum in Ekalaka (website, facebook) has kindly offered to be the official federal repository.

Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta has some incredible dinosaur fossils on display, especially of the duckbill Brachylophosaurus, which are found in the Judith River Formation exposed north of town.
Photograph by Sarah Boessenecker.

Curator Nate Carroll talks about the duckbilled dinosaur Edmontosaurus to  a group of children at Carter County Museum, Ekalaka (the federal repository for the fossils that we find).
Check out their annual public festival: the DINO SHINDIG!
Photo from Carter County Museum on Facebook.


Finally, I would like to explicitly (and implicitly) thank everyone who has been involved in setting up this new initiative. Myself and my crew unreservedly appreciate the efforts and support provided by American Prairie Reserve and many other people who have made this possible. Thank you! We hope that we can return this faith with exciting new fossils and research!

Now, in the meantime I must get back to writing up my dissertation...

Some links related to this article:

Carter County Museum, Ekalaka
Website: http://cartercountymuseum.org/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CarterCountyMuseum

Bureau of Land Management -Paleontology page

Really nice documentary by PBS on the high-plains prairie habitat. Still streamable (in USA at least)



This fieldwork is being undertaken by the independent company "Fowler Paleontology and Geology" newly registered in the state of Montana. All opinions, facts, and / or errors in this blog are those of Denver Fowler (i.e. me), and not any other person, company, or organisation who might be mentioned here in any capacity.


  1. Hi Denver, great news!
    Wish you guys all the best for the field season ahead!
    Being a deep HC project aficionado and having been recently awarded for a scholarship on a PhD project on North American dinosaur biodiversity/preservation/palaeoenvironment reconstruction at the latest Cretaceous, I couldn't be more supportive and interested on your recent advances. Please, keep us constantly updated! Cheers,


    1. Congrats on the scholarship! I have a few projects on the horizon that might well interest you... I'm busy writing them up at the moment. Once I have the strat chart together, then it should be a fantastic framework for accurate biological investigations.

    2. Thanks, that's great, I'd be really enthusiast to co-work with you once again!