“I love you, I love you, my dinosaur.”
-J Yolen and M Teague. How do dinosaurs say I love you?
I used to dread reptiles. But we have two children, aged 6 and 5, who can’t seem to get enough of dinosaurs. Their enthusiasm not only led their parents to get acclimated to having likenesses of these ancient monstrous reptiles all over our mammalian household: we got infected by their curiosity.
Soon we were all reading up on dinosaurs. For the love of these two children, we traveled to Montana. Montana has been endorsed by a friend as a great place for learning and finding dinosaurs.
After two trips to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, our family decided to get a feel of what it’s like to be out in the field in search of dinosaur bones.
So, we signed up for the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center’s dinosaur program. It’s one of the museums in the Montana Dinosaur Trail.
TMDC is in Bynum, Montana. It is in central Montana and according to the Central Montana website, has a human population of only a few dozen. It’s a 3.5 hour drive from Bozeman and Missoula, about an hour drive from Great Falls and Glacier National Park. Choteau, which is about 15 minutes away has an inn, restaurants and the Old Trail Museum, which is also part of the Montana Dinosaur Trail.
How can the little humans memorize tongue-twister dinosaur names while the grown-ups struggle?
I think my favorite dinosaur is the Maiasaura. On reconstructions, it has a gentle face. Maiasaura is also an easy-to-remember, feminine dinosaur name that sounds like Mama-saura. Good mother lizard.
Maiasaura, is a hadrosaur or duck-billed dinosaur that lived in the Cretaceous period, 76.4 million years ago. Maiasaura is the state fossil of Montana.
Dana, our dinosaur field guide from TMDC told us stories of a lady named Marion and the Maiasaura on the drive to the site.
Marion Nehring Trexler Brandvold was the daughter of homesteaders, grew up in the Bynum area and at age 5, had her first horse and found her first dinosaur bone. She owned a rock and jewelry shop. If you visit Bynum, the store is beside the museum: The Trex Agate Shop.
Marion and her son Dave discovered a partial dinosaur in the early 1970s and went around the state to compare it with the other dinosaurs that they read had been discovered in Montana. To Marion’s dismay, practically all the dinosaur finds from Montana had been taken away to other states and countries for research and display. That led Marion and her family to start a small museum to display dinosaur artifact finds from their locale.
Marion did not have formal Paleontology training but there was a ranch foreman who taught her about fossils.
On a summer evening in 1978, Marion, son Dave and daughter-in-law Laurie found a duck-billed dinosaur skeleton. On that same outing, Marion also found tiny dinosaur bones.
Jack Horner (at that time a fossil preparator in Princeton and eventually became the Curator of Paleontology of the Museum of the Rockies and scientific advisor to the Jurassic Park films) and Bob Makela stopped by Marion’s rock shop and museum. Jack asked Marion if she had anything else cool and she showed him some of the bones of the tiny dinosaur – a couple of vertebrae. When asked if she had any more, she directed them to her son Dave, who was putting the dinosaur bones together on their living room table.
The bones were nothing that they had seen before: they were baby dinosaur bones.
The story goes that over a handshake, the tiny dinosaur bones were lent to further academic research. They were carefully packaged in paper towels, placed in a Folgers coffee can and were taken to Princeton then transferred to Yale when Princeton’s Paleontology department closed.
What Marion and her family found turned out to be a new dinosaur species, named by Jack Horner and Bob Makela Maiasaura peeblesorum and the first baby dinosaur discovered in North America. A place in the Two Medicine Formation is now called Egg Mountain because of the findings of eggs and more baby dinosaurs.
This discovery triggered shifts in paleontologic thinking: dinosaurs cared for their young. Maiasaura did not just leave their eggs and hatchlings behind but raised their young in nesting colonies. There came to be renewed interest in paleontologic research and digs in the Two Medicine area that led to the discovery of other dinosaur species.
In 2004, the original baby dinosaur bones returned home to Montana –after a long legal battle. Marion Brandvold was 92.
Marion Brandvold passed away in 2014 at the age of 102.
Her son, Dave Trexler, is now the paleontologist of the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center.
2018 is the 40th anniversary of the baby Maiasaura discovery and those baby bones are now on display at its “home museum”.
The Two Medicine Dinosaur Center’s mission is to encourage the public hands-on scientific participation through their dig and volunteer programs. In the center, you are greeted by the staff with warm welcomes. There’s no age limit. They welcome children and the curious child in you. Good Mother nurtures the Paleontology passion.
Journey to the Cretaceous
Why is Montana, particularly the Two Medicine Formation a great place to find dinosaur fossils?
The Museum of the Rockies gave us the answer:
1. Presence of right age rock
The geologic structure that is the Two Medicine Formation is sedimentary rock 2,000 feet thick. It was laid down between 72 to 84 million years ago, which coincides with the late Cretaceous period or the Campanian. The Western Interior Seaway, also known as the Cretaceous Seaway split North America into two landmasses. The inland sea covered most of what is now Montana; the area where dinosaurs lived would have been a coastal plain, similar to the current coastal plains of the Carolinas or Georgia.
Layers of sedimentary rock from rivers and deltas preserved evidence of what life had been in the area. Rocks may be hard but they don’t last forever. Where erosion has exposed them, we find those ancient lifeforms, now in the form of fossils.
What about the eggs and juveniles?
Fossilized dinosaur eggs and hatchlings are rare probably because of a harsh environment where they get eaten by predators. Another reason may be with the acidity of sandy soil. Around the time of dinosaurs, the Rocky Mountains were being formed and the Madison Limestone Formation may have provided calcium in water runoffs that made the soil alkaline and allowed fossilization of fragile eggs and young bones in Egg Mountain.
TMDC’s Public Dinosaur Programs
We signed up with TMDC for the half day program, which we agree is just right for families with young kids. There was plenty to learn and experience for small kids in a half day.
For longer programs and older children, there’s opportunity for fossil preparation in the laboratory.
Bone or stone?
The lick test that we learned, apparently to help figure out in the field if a teeny-weeny fragment is a bone or stone was highly dubious at first.
My daughter followed instructions: licked her finger and stuck her suspected fragment of bone. Fossilized bone is porous and would stick; rocks won’t.
When we were leaving the field site, a baby horned toad showed up. A living reptile.
On the drive home, we spotted a deer and an avian dinosaur took to the sky.
Life on earth continues.
Thanks for reading our blog post!
Two Medicine Dinosaur Center
The Montana Dinosaur Trail
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