Cobbers conduct research through dinosaur dig

Every summer, students travel out to Seven Blackfoot Ranch, located about two hours from Jordan, Montana, to spend two weeks searching the land for fossils. The ranch is located on the Hell Creek Formation, an intensively-studied area where researchers have found fossils of sea creatures and land animals alike. The group from Concordia is led by Dr. Ron Nellermoe and is funded through Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (URSCA).

Every spring, the biology department sends out a call for student researchers for the summer, which is how junior Sam Engrav got involved. Engrav described looking through the list of research opportunities and saw dinosaurs on the list, something that she said she “never outgrew a childhood love of.”

Before leaving for Montana, the group spends about a week on campus preparing for the trip. This week is spent learning how to use the different tools they will be taking with them, as well as preparing all the food and camping materials they will need for the two week trip.

Once in Montana, the hiking begins.

“Some people have this mentality of Jurassic Park where you get out there and the bones are right there, but sometimes you’re hiking for 10 miles a day,” Engrav said.

Senior Emily Laaveg agreed that there is a lot more hiking than she expected.

“Whether you do more hiking depends on where your group gets sent and where you’re allowed to look. Some days you might hike 5 miles up and down the buttes, but once you find a spot that has fossils, you only need to hike that far and spend the whole day digging.”

The days are full of hiking and looking for fossils, but that’s not the only work the students do on the trip. When they’re not excavating fossils, the students might be taking soil samples or doing geological analyses of the surrounding land to bring back to campus with them as well.

Typically the group has been required to stay on the land owned by Seven Blackfoot Ranch. “This year we got licenses to dig on state land,” explained senior Joe Grove. Getting to dig on state land led to the group finding fossils from a triceratops, hadrosaur, and microfossils from fish and aquatic animals.

When the two weeks are up, the group brings whatever fossils they found back to campus with them. Throughout the school year they work in the lab, located in Riverside Center, to clean up the fossils and try to get them to a point where they are presentable. This process includes using dental picks, scalpels, toothbrushes, and compressed air. “It’s very meticulous work,” said Laaveg, “but it’s also a nice stress-relief project compared to other work during a semester.”

Aside from working on cleaning up and restoring the bones, students have the opportunity to do research with the fossils as well. Engrav said, “I’m currently working with an Allosaurus specimen that was found in Wyoming in 2004. We do CT scans of the bones and my job is to look at the scans and do 3D reconstructions of what the dinosaur might have looked like.”

Grove explained more of why this research, which he has been involved in for the past two years, is special: “The specimen shows characteristics of an Allosaurus, but has morphological characteristics that differentiate it from a normal one. Basically we’re trying to figure out if this animal is a new species, or just a strange individual Allosaurus.”

While it might seem like this is only an experience for scientists, Laaveg herself is a museum studies major. “It’s nice to be able to bring a humanities perspective to the dig that is typically more students with science majors.” she said.

Everyone who goes on the trip to Montana and works in the lab, no matter their major, is very passionate about the work that they do, but there is not a lot of awareness around campus about the work that they do. Engrav said, “I didn’t know this was a possibility until I saw the research call, and my friends didn’t know it was a thing until I started working here. It’s fun work. We want to show people what goes on here and we get excited when other people get excited about the work that we’re doing.”


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