There was a time when Southeast Missouri State University senior Rachel Bell questioned the authenticity of dinosaurs.
But after fossil prospecting last summer in the Badlands of Montana, the prehistoric reptiles became very real to this wildlife/conservation biology major.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said as she cleaned what is believed to be a leg bone collected from the summer experience. “When you touch it, find it … holding something 66 million years old … it’s pretty cool.”
Bell was among eight Southeast students who recently spent a Saturday in the Rhodes Hall Geoscience Lab cleaning, gluing and preserving dinosaur fossils they collected in the Hell Creek Formation of the Mesozoic Era near Jordan, Montana, last July. The group reunited with the Adventure 360-Paleo X Adventure Team of Fenton, Missouri, who teamed up last summer to prospect for dinosaur fossils.
The room buzzed as they worked with triceratops and other dinosaur fossils they pedestaled and casted in eastern Montana. It’s a puzzle of sorts with many tiny broken pieces needing to be correctly reassembled.
“It is very neat that the students can work on in the lab the same fossils they found in the field back in July,” said Pamela Mills, geoscience instructor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics.
From July 13-20, the group experienced and was instructed on paleontology field techniques. Their summer days included instruction and application of techniques in prospecting, fossil excavation and collection of fossils.
“We traveled to a region of Montana famous for its paleontology history and where the majority of Tyrannosaurus Rex specimens have been found,” Mills said. “We found lots of dinosaur bones,” mainly triceratops.
Southeast students participating in the trip were Tanner Stadelbacher, an environmental science major from Anna, Illinois; David Escamilla, a wildlife/conservation biology major from Ballwin, Missouri; Taylor Beggs, an environmental science major from Sikeston, Missouri; Bell, a wildlife/conservation biology major from Columbia, Illinois; Libby Adams, an environmental science major from Rolla, Missouri; Anthony Mitchell, a December 2019 Southeast graduate from Jackson, Missouri; Becky Tamborski, a biology major, pre-physician assistant option, from High Ridge, Missouri; and Aleigha Blagg, an English education major from Bell City, Missouri.
The students conducted field work about an hour from Jordan, where they hiked and prospected the entire day. While students said it was an exhausting week, it is one they will not soon forget.
“I loved it,” said Stadelbacher. “It’s hard to describe the feeling. The possibility of (finding a fossil) and it being an actual bone is so exciting.”
Beggs said, “there were literally fossils all over the place.”
Sometimes, only a very tiny piece of a fossil was visible from the ground, but after some excavation, something much more defined might emerge. Thanks to the instruction from the Paleo X team, the students learned the area was a treasure-trove of fossils. The Paleo X team comprises dedicated volunteer experts who provide students with a hands-on educational field school to investigate the region’s geology, paleontology, stratigraphy and erosion, while learning about fossil identification, mapping and GPS use, geologic time, regional history, fossilization processes, career opportunities and more.
“They have so much hands-on knowledge,” Stadelbacher said. “They showed us the ropes and what we were looking for.”
That team also offered the students evening programming provided by Ron Giesler, a 1982 Southeast graduate, director of Adventure 360 and Paleo X team coordinator; and Gary Schaefer and Gene Woodford, who also volunteer in the St. Louis Science Center Fossil Prep Lab. Others offering their expertise were AlanWestfall, a Southeast alumnus and successful St. Louis business owner who has done anthropology and archaeology graduate work; and Dr. Michael Morales of Emporia College.
The students then applied that knowledge to their field work. When they found exposed bones last summer, they recorded their location with GPS coordinates, then used field glue to help preserve them, digging completely around and under them to excavate them, when possible. Next, they were finished on a pedestal.
“We would then coat the fossils with burlap and foil before forming a plaster cast over the top of the fossilized bone. After the plaster hardened, the students were able to transport the fossil more safely from the field in the plaster jacket created in the field,” Mills said.
Strata where the fossils were collected were over 65 million years old, Mills said. Prospecting was restricted to areas where prior permits through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were obtained. Fossils collected are “on loan” for educational purposes to Mills so the geoscience students can continue to work on the fossils. While the students were not permitted to keep the bones they found, they could collect limited amounts of petrified wood, rocks and minerals.
“Several of them came back with beautiful metamorphic rock pieces — rocks that are not common to Missouri,” Mills said.
The bones the students unearthed were delivered to Mills in August by the Paleo X Adventure 360 team. She plans to display the bones collected and use them in future classes and workshops for K-12 students.
Since August, the group has continued cleaning the bones, and this semester they will get independent study credit to get them “display ready” so they can be exhibited in cases in Magill and Rhodes halls and in the Geoscience Lab.
“I can’t really put into words what you see and how you feel” when you discover these fossils, Stadelbacher said. “We left early, hiked all day and got in late. But when you find a dinosaur bone, that all goes out the window.”
Mills is planning to take another group of students to Montana the week of July 19.
“As long as there is interest, I will continue to try to provide this unique opportunity to students at Southeast,” she said.