North Dakota's Prehistoric Times Come Alive This Summer

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Millions of years ago, the eastern half of North Dakota was completely underwater, and the western part of the state was home to some of the most vicious creatures to ever walk the Earth.

Today, paleontologists from all over the world came to North Dakota to figure out what Earth was like millions of years ago. This summer, you have the chance to dig up your own prehistoric fossil.

Becky Barnes says paleontology is more than just digging up the past, it's about making ferocious beasts come to life.

"I like monsters," said Barnes, North Dakota Geological Survey paleontology lab manager. "When I was really little, my dad took me to an animatronic dinosaur show, and I realized that these were real monsters."

Since then, she was hooked on dinosaurs and everything about Earth when they ruled the planet.

Barnes helped put together "Dakota," the name of a fossilized edmontosaurus found in Bowman County in 1999.

"We spent about five years preparing the skin on Dakota, which is why it's so rare because there's fossilized skin on it," explained Barnes.

On a public dig in eastern Montana, Clint Boyd says his group was the first to find parts of a one year-old thescelosaurus, which was one of most powerful plant-eating dinosaurs 100 million years ago.

"It had a full and complete skull," said Boyd, a senior paleontologist for the North Dakota Geological Survey. "So it was the first time that we could look at what that animal looked like as a juvenile, and compare it to the adults and understand what was happening in its growth."

Since 2000, the state geological survey organizes public digs every summer to let people get their hands dirty and discover prehistoric artifacts for themselves.

"Usually, we find bits and pieces," Barnes said. "This is stuff that's left over after scavengers have done their thing, after mother nature has done its thing, after bacteria have come in and rotted away the flesh, and you're left with just scraps."

While you might hope to find an entire t-rex skull on one of these digs, what you could find is a tooth, but just one tooth can go a long way.

"The most common thing you'll hear from people the first time you point out a fossil in the ground to them is that, 'I wouldn't have even recognized that as being a fossil, I would've thought it was a rock,'" Boyd said.

And the excitement over a new discovery never goes away.

"Someone finds something themselves for the first time and realizes that you're the first person to ever see that fossil since it buried millions of years ago," Boyd said. "That's a really special feeling that, even all of us here, we get the same feeling when you find something, and you're like, this is the first time it has ever been seen by human eyes."

"We're really trying to make the past alive," said Barnes. "We want to spark people's imaginations and show them the history that's beneath their feet."

A history that explains the origins of where we live.

Here's a list of all five digs across the state this summer.

Bismarck - June 22-26
Marmarth - July 7-11
Pembina Gorge - July 20-26
Medora - August 3-9
Whiskey Creek - August 17-21

For pricing and information on how to sign up, visit http://www.dmr.nd.gov/ndfossil/digs/digs.asp