Dino digs draw people to North Dakota

Published: Jul. 26, 2022 at 5:55 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Finding a fossil opens the window to history and with each discovery, people are more intrigued.

The Paleontology Database puts North Dakota at 11th among states with the most fossil finds. Since 2017, 67-million-year-old Edmontosaurus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaurus fossils have been discovered at North Dakota Geological Survey Paleontology’s public dig site south of Mandan.

Folks come from across the country -- and the world -- to uncover dinosaur bones in North Dakota.

Underneath the earth lies a mystery waiting to be found.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Jon Lee, who’s visiting from Brunswick, ME with his family.

Trowels, brushes, and awls sound out at the dig site. Each person hopes the next rock they move will reveal history.

“Bone sounds different when you tap your tools on it. Mud makes more of a ‘thunk thunk’ sound and bone makes more of a ‘tink tink’ sound. It also feels a little bit different,” said Becky Barnes, paleontologist and lab manager at the North Dakota Geological Survey.

The process is dusty and takes patience.

“Two full days and I didn’t find a thing and I was so frustrated,” said Jon Lee.

But the reward pays off.

“At the end of the second day, I was just sweeping with the brush and slowly uncovered a bone. There was an adrenaline rush. I realized I was the first human being to ever see that bone. 66 million years it’s been in the ground, and I got to uncover it,” said Jon Lee.

Some visitors dig for the first time. Others, like Jon and his family, have come back year after year.

“It’s changed a lot actually. We brought this large area down and in,” said Reagan Lee, who’s visiting from Brunswick, ME with her family.

They work top-down clearing the earth before digging around each fossil.

“Sometimes you get bone-in-trench disease where you keep getting bones in trenches. You keep digging trenches. It’s fun,” said Reagan Lee.

Each fossil is encased in plaster before it’s brought to the lab to be cleaned.

“We would love to find a large skeleton of course, but anything we find is great. At this site we tend to just find individual elements,” said Jeff Person, paleontologist at the North Dakota Geological Survey.

Unique finds at this site include two large T-rex teeth found in 2017.

If you’re interested in coming on a dino dig, the site south of Mandan and Bismarck typically opens in July. Spots fill up quickly and are full for this year.

The North Dakota Geological Survey Paleontology department also runs dig sites at Medora and Pembina Gorge.

More information can be found at Fossil Digs | Department of Mineral Resources, North Dakota (nd.gov).

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