New species discovered at Pembina Gorge fossil dig

The 2016 Pembina Gorge Fossil Dig held late this past summer from August 10 through the 13 yielded another exciting find for both the amateur and professional paleontology crew.

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Posted on 9/10/16

By Melissa Anderson

“We found three additional skull bones this summer, including a quadrate, which is the bone that forms the joint where the skull connects to the lower jaw,” stated Clint Boyd, the Senior Paleontologist and Curator of the North Dakota State Fossil Collection with the North Dakota Geological Survey (NDGS) in Bismarck.

The Pierre Formation, located in Pembina Gorge, is dated to the late Cretaceous Period which occurred 80 million years ago and holds some of the oldest surface rocks in North Dakota. Within these rocks some amazing prehistoric creatures can be found such as squid, sea turtles, Xiphactinus and Enchodus fish, Hesperornis birds, and the best find to date was a partial mosasuar or giant sea lizard in common lingo. That will change as result of this past summers work at the site.

“The skull found last year and the three bones collected this year are from the same individual,” Boyd explained, “The presence of this ‘new to North Dakota’ species highlights the importance of the fossils preserved in the Pembina Gorge area and their key role in helping us understand North Dakota’s prehistoric heritage.”

Over the past few years one mosasuar has been mostly uncovered, the majority of which the NDGS team has found in parts and pieces. During the 2015 summer dig another mosasuar skull was discovered in close proximity. It is this most recent find that Boyd believes is the new species.

The new bones that were discovered this summer are a result of previous digs’ work at gently uncovering the fossils. The first piece of this skull was found last year by a visitor to the site. NDGS paleontologist Jeff Person then found where exactly it was coming out of the rock. This summer, when Boyd was re-opening the site for the upcoming dig, he found the quadrate while preparing the site for more work.

“We are still working on identifying the exact species,” Boyd stated, “but we do know it is a species that we have never before found in North Dakota. The question then becomes, is it a species that is known elsewhere, or is it entirely new to science?”

Boyd explained that the shape of the quadrate changes a lot between different species of mosasaurs, making it very useful for determining what species paleontologists and others assisting in the dig may have found.

“Already this find tells us this mosasaur is from a species we have never before found in North Dakota, which is always exciting,” Boyd said.

The fossils that are found at dig sites such as the Pierre Formation help paleontologists recreate the world where these ancient sea dwelling specimens lived. These most recent finds at the site demonstrate that it is a highly productive site that NDGS  still has a lot to learn about.

“After long years of work we are getting a good feeling for where the most productive parts of the site are situated,” Boyd said, “However, each year we make unexpected finds in spots we did not expect, so it’s important for us to continue working the entire site over time.”

The fossils recovered from the Pembina Gorge dig are initially taken back to the Paleontology department, which is based in the Heritage Center in Bismarck.

Once there, the team of scientist get to work cleaning up the bones. Then they compare the bones to published images and descriptions of known species and perhaps visit other museums and compare in person. The team may also send images of the bones to experts that work on these animals for assistance. If they can not find anything that matches, then the team knows that they most likely have a new species.

“Once we clean all the bones up we will definitely be able to figure out where they all go in the skull, unless they are really badly damaged,”  Boyd said.

Some of the fossils found end up on display at the Heritage Center, Icelandic State Park, Pembina County Museum, or other museums within the state.

Public fossil digs are very important to the NDGS as these are a vital means for research, education, and outreach to not only North Dakota residents but adventurers from other states and countries as well.

“Getting people excited about what they can find in their home state or showing people from out-of-state what awesome things we have is important,” Barnes explained, “Digs, museum exhibits and displays, talks, fossil preparation, and preserving our history is all part of what the Paleo crews do.”

Boyd, along with the rest of the NDGS team, hopes that this new find, brings more attention to the importance of the Pembina Gorge.

“We hope to put the skull together and find some place in the state, preferably in the northeast corner, to put it on display,” Boyd stated.

The NDGS partners with museums and other institutions across the state to provide exhibits on the state’s fossils and geology.

“I am sure we will find a great spot for it somewhere,” Boyd said.

These finds are only made possible because of the great partnership that NDGS has with the North Dakota State Parks and Recreation Department. Without their commitment to this project, these great treasures would be lost forever.

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