Burpee may find more prehistoric giants

More promising finds made in Hell Creek, Mont., near the site of the famous dinosaur JANE

Burpee Museum of Natural History—which in 2001 discovered the now famous juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex dubbed JANE—may have more prehistoric giants in the rough.

This past spring and summer, expeditions led by Burpee Museum and Northern Illinois University surveyed three promising sites in Carter County, Mont., where JANE was discovered, and removed dinosaur fossils from each.

Two of the sites yielded the bones of Triceratops, a large, horned dinosaur that grew to about 30 feet in length and weighed up to 5 tons. At a third site, expedition members unearthed some bones from an equally large duck-billed dinosaur known as Edmontosaurus, a plant eater that lived at about the same time as JANE.

Burpee Curator Mike Henderson said: “These are important finds. If it turns out that we have enough bones at these sites, we’ll be able to display some spectacular new dinosaurs for people here in Rockford. The fact that these discoveries were made by people from our community is a huge shot in the arm for this program that already has the JANE find to its credit.”

Burpee Museum and NIU have long collaborated on paleontology. (NIU Professor Bill Harrison was among the volunteers who discovered the initial JANE fossil.) U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo (R-16) ramped up the partnership in 2003 when he secured $1 million in federal funding to advance plans for the Burpee Museum campus and research center.

Burpee and adjacent Discovery Center Museum have embarked on a $12.5 million capital campaign that aims to renovate and rejuvenate the museum campus along the Rock River in downtown Rockford. Among the goals are expanding both museums, providing a new home for JANE and developing additional programs for research and education.

As part of the proposed expansion, NIU is working with Burpee Museum on the creation of a natural sciences laboratory that would improve prep areas, provide more space for student researchers, enhance environmental education programs and improve collections and storage capabilities.

“The recent finds from Hell Creek provide yet another example of the benefits from the NIU-Burpee partnership,” said Reed Scherer, a professor of geology and environmental geosciences at NIU and member of Burpee Museum Board of Trustees. “We’ve had quite a few undergraduate and graduate students involved in Burpee-related projects. They’re getting hands-on experience in the field and in the laboratory. The partnership enhances the profiles of both the museum and the university.”

Scherer was part of a team of NIU faculty and students who traveled in May to Montana’s Hell Creek region and found bones of Triceratops. The Hell Creek Formation is a sedimentary deposition that runs through four states, and is rich in dinosaur fossils. The team’s promising fossil finds were followed in July by a Burpee-NIU expedition, led by Henderson and Burpee Collections Manager Scott Williams.

During the second trip, Rockford-area residents Helmuth Redschlag, Velta Pocs and Maureen Mall discovered the second Triceratops site, where a complete femur (thighbone), vertebra, several ribs and skull and hip material were exposed within hours.

The Triceratops dinosaur is well known among paleontologists. It had three formidable horns, one on its nose and two above its eyes, as well as a bony frill (head-shield).

The features were useful in defense against a Tyrannosaurus. Lew Crampton, Museum president, said, “Triceratops is the most common dinosaur found in the Hell Creek deposits, but it’s rare to find complete skeletal remains because the animals were scavenged unmercifully by T. rex.”

Burpee plans to obtain an excavation permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to further explore and excavate both Triceratops sites. The fossils excavated will be researched and prepared for display by students and staff from NIU and Burpee. While it is still too early to tell, there is a possibility that enough Triceratops material will be uncovered at both sites to display a substantially complete specimen at the museum.

Members of the July expedition also recovered fossils of Edmontosaurus, including toe bones, ribs, vertebra and a scapula (shoulder-blade). The lumbering duck-billed dinosaur had short arms, a long pointed tail and hundreds of teeth for grinding food. Excavations at that site are expected to continue next year as well.

Burpee Museum and NIU will team up on several one-week expeditions to Hell Creek in May and June of 2006. People interested in joining the team for a dinosaur discovery adventure can contact Scott Williams at (815) 965-3433.

Burpee Museum of Natural History is at 737 N. Main St., Rockford. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m., Sunday. More info: call (815) 965-3433 or visit www.burpee.org.

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2005, issue

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