DICKINSON, N.D. - Digging up dinosaur fossils means getting into the dirt, often on your knees and under the blazing sun. But seldom has the work ever been more rewarding than a field trip taken to north-central Montana this summer.
Denver Fowler, paleontologist at the Dickinson Museum Center, along with Liz Freedman-Fowler and their four-person volunteer team, returned to Dickinson on Aug. 28, 2017, with 38 jackets of fossils and smaller pieces of fossilized bone. Among them was a dinosaur that was previously unknown to the scientific world - a type of nodosaur from 76 million years ago.
"This will be a new species - it will need a new name because no one has ever found one of these kind of dinosaurs before. We have the skull, which is the most important part to tell what species it is," Denver said.
What they do know is the dinosaur is a relative of the ankylosaurus - a dinosaur with a club on its tail and spikes on its body.
"This one doesn't have a tail club, but it has big spikes on the body and is a member of the same family," Denver said.
Because of the ankylosaurus discovered in the area, they nicknamed the site "Akloymania."
"It was better than we expected and everything we hoped for," Liz said.
"It was the best field season I've ever had," added Denver. "As a prospector, we found so much, it was ridiculous. Every day was completely amazing. Every day was crazy discoveries. Next year, we will be applying for 10 excavation permits."
He expects the team will be busy for at least the next three or four years on the same site at Rudyard, Mont.
"You have to be careful, too," he added. "If you find a big bone, you can dig one meter square around the bone without a prospecting permit. So if the bones develop, you've got to find a good stopping place. You dig until you know what you've got and then cover up the site until next year."
"It's to protect it for the winter," Liz added.
"And frankly, it's to protect the cows from stamping on it," Denver added. "We have to make it unattractive to the cows. If something kind of looks interesting, they will go over to it."
The Fowlers worked on the Late Cretaceous Judith River Formation - badlands-like land owned by Dan and Lila Redding north of Rudyard.
"Usually, how this works is you prospect an area, I find a few sites that look promising and then apply for a special permit to dig a bigger hole the following year. We usually follow up on sites from last year and look for new ones," Denver said. "Liz does the quarrying and I do the prospecting."
"Denver likes to prospect, so he walks around and finds the dinosaur fossils and I prefer to quarry - that is, I dig them up," Liz said.
Denver is employed by the Dickinson Museum Center while Liz is an adjunct professor at Dickinson State University's natural sciences department. She teaches three of the labs there. She is chair of the exhibits committee for the board of the directors of the Stark County Historical Society, which advises the museum.
They were in the field for five weeks - east of Malta and north of Rudyard.
"We had a couple of volunteers, who were our students when we were doing on Ph.D.s at Bozeman," Liz said.
Liz has been digging at Rudyard since 2004 when she was a student and teaching at Montana State University Bozeman.
Two years ago, Denver was helping Liz with a field trip at Rudyard when he came across bones sticking out of a cliff. It was an ankylosaurus. Also last year, they found another site on BLM land where they applied for a permit to dig for a Centrosaurus - described as more like a triceratops, but half the size.
"The first half of the trip we were supposed to dig the Centrosaurus, but with so many fires, the BLM didn't have time to survey the site for us," Denver said. "We didn't have an excavation permit so we had to explore the area instead."
The dig this year was in partnership between the Dickinson Museum Center and the Rudyard Depot Museum.
"These sites don't have much overburden - the hill above the bone layer," said Liz. "Luckily, it was pretty soft rock. We used picks and shovels to get close to the bone layer and then used small chisels and knives."
"Yes, we get very dirty - we were digging through a coal mine at Rudyard," she added.
"We found a lot of amber," Denver added. "I'm hopeful I have a bag of amber with insects."
The terrain was very old - up to 79 million years old, which would have resembled Louisiana's modern-day swamps. It served as habitat for the dinosaurs, along with turtles and crocodiles.
"On the very last day, we found a horned dinosaur - only one piece of skull that looks quite promising," Denver said. "To dig it properly will be quite an undertaking. We didn't know the site would turn into something this great.The piece is in a jacket all wrapped up," he said.
The Fowlers were able to date the site because two volcanic ash deposits are preserved there - ash from volcanoes when the Rocky Mountains were still rising up.
Now that they're back home, they will begin writing a paper describing the new species.
First, the skull must be cleaned, preferably by fossil preparators.
"Basically, we need money to pay a preparer to clean it," Liz said.
Denver said his interest in dinosaurs started as a youth in Manchester, England, when he'd explore with his dad.
"When I was like 4 or 5 years old, we went on holiday to the beach and found an ammonite," he said. "After that, we started looking for fossils, my brother as well. Fossils is like treasure hunting. It was great fun," he said.
He's been collecting dinosaur fossils all over the world or 20-odd years. One new species has already been named after him - ojoceratops fowleri, found in New Mexico.
'We like the Northern Plains region - it's very close to field areas," Denver said. "The last 10 years, we've been living in Bozeman - it's warmer here and not as much snow. Dickinson is ideal."
Liz is originally from Florida, a state she described as far too hot and having no dinosaurs. She worked at Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman throughout college career,
Their vision is to make the Dickinson Museum Center a world-class fossil museum.
"That's my mandate," Denver said. "It takes time, it takes money, it takes staff. We have world-class specimens. I'm working on getting this museum as a federal repository. Right now
BLM fossils we collect are technically being stored in Bismarck. For a repository status we need to do few things like new fossil storage units."
Liz added, "Once we get approval, any fossils we collect on BLM land can remain here in Dickinson."
Dickinson Museum Center director Bob Fuhrman was impressed with their research.
"When I'd get texts, emails and phone calls during the course of the fieldwork, I was impressed by their excitability. When they talked about the best field season ever, they meant it. It was phenomenal. Their excitement was contagious."