Digging for Dinosaurs in North Dakota

Mj 618_348_digging for dinosaurs in north dakota
Mark Klingler / Carnegie Museum of Natural History / Getty Images

Tyler Lyson grew up surrounded by dinosaurs. He discovered the “Chicken from Hell,” a 500-pound, 11-foot-tall raptor with the less scientifically exciting name Anzu Wyliei, on his Uncle’s Ranch near the town of Marmarth, North Dakota in 1999 when he was in high school. “I knew even then that it was a new species,” he says of the hump-headed skeleton introduced to the public this week. “Whenever you find something new, it’s really exciting.” An undergraduate degree in biology – the man loves turtles – and a doctorate in geology from Yale later, Lyson is now a fellow at the Smithsonian, which he means he spends a lot of time in his home town.

The area surrounding Marmarth, known to the sort of scholars who stay indoors as the badlands, contains several of the richest fossil deposits on Earth. Not only are there bones (“They’re everywhere,” says Lyson), there is “Shock Quartz,” the term geologists use for the cat-scratched crystals that shoot through the ashen clay of the K-T Boundary, the sedimentary line created by the meteor that offed every last T. Rex.

And, yes, Lyson has a Rex. It sits in the Marmarth Research Foundation, the organization he started to welcome non-rock hounds onto his digs. The people who pay to join Lyson’s expeditions – he claims to have hosted former spies, working geochemists, and “a lot of school teachers” – live in a train depot and sweat their way through the fieldwork, whether that means searching for new fossils or uncovering important specimens. “I don’t want anyone who just liked watching Jurassic Park,” he says. “You have to like to work and want to be outside.”

On the plus side, Lyson sends everyone home with a goodie bag containing a dino bone: “They’re not all scientifically important.”

As for the ones that are – Anzu Wyliei, Lyson’s famed “Dino Mummy,” a hadrosaur still covered in skin, and his triceratops – they get studied for decades by the top men in the field (who don’t work in the field). Lyson, who was on vacation in Arizona when his 15-year-old find made headlines, is happy when the creatures he discovers finally wander into the limelight.

“Any time people are excited about paleontology,” he says, “that’s a win as far as I’m concerned.”

More information: MRF digs run through the summer. Volunteers can sign on for a week at a time and fly into Rapid City, South Dakota. The organization charges $900 a week for adults and $800 for students.

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