Adventure to the past

Matthew Mossbrucker (second from left, facing front) of the Morrison Natural History Museum in Morrison, Colorado, tells participants about the geological formation of the landscape north of Glenrock where the dig took place.
By: 
Ethan Brogan

While the majority of town sleeps Saturday morning, a group of five adventurers eagerly gather in downtown Glenrock. The early risers are anxious to get out and get dirty as paleontologists Sean Smith and Matthew Mossbrucker check and recheck the contents of a white trailer emblazoned with a large Triceratops skull.

The five wannabe fossil hounds from Colorado wait on the precipice of an experience they have planned for months and have driven hours to reach.

Discussions of discovering new species and breaking scientific frontiers can be heard as the lucky five anxiously wait for their learned instructors to ready the gear.

It is their first foray into paleontology and they can’t wait to dive into the painstakingly slow process of excavating rock and earth that has been in place for 65 million years.

To these few, nothing could be finer than spending a day with their noses in the dirt. The Glenrock Paleontological Museum allows budding dinosaur enthusiasts the chance to get a glimpse of the past. A group of five was led out Saturday morning to a small dig site in the Powder River Basin where last year a Triceratops tailbone was found embedded in the old dirt. Thegroup gathered around a geological map of the area as Smith, one of the directors of paleontology at the Museum, spoke about what treasures lay dormant beneath them.

After careful instruction on how to spot fossilized bone and the obligatory safety concerns of cactus, yucca and potential snakes, the group marches from a two-track road on private land straight into the late years of the cretaceous period where coelophysis, diplodocus and triceratops ruled the jungle landscape just a few miles north of Glenrock.

Smith is joined by Mossbrucker, director and chief coordinator at the Morrison Natural History Museum in Morrison, Colorado.

Mossbrucker then goes through the spotting process of finding and identifying fibrous tissue to determine if a bone has been found.

After the orientation Smith and Mossbrucker bring together all the participants and begin to move down the hill toward the dig. The sweltering heat of late is holding off for the time being, as Mossbrucker lets loose the group to find fossils laying on the surface.

It wasn’t long before paleontologists and trainees alike were gathered around the first find of the day, a gar fish bone with an apparent tooth mark on it, indicating that the fish had been eaten by something a bit larger.

“Finding good fossil bearing is as much about luck as it is with anything else,” Smith said. But lucky or not the group was energized by the find and it wasn’t long before all of them were discovering tiny bits of ancient animals as the sun climbed high, baking the ground they scoured.

Both museums are non-profits and have teamed up to educate and promote local paleontological involvement.

“It’s hard to find good pairing and institutions that fit,” Mossbrucker said. Both Smith and Mossbrucker feel this partnership is the beginning of a great collaborative effort for paleontology.

Morrison Museum Coordinator Doug Hartshorn has been working in the museum for 12 years, but this is his first time at a dig.

“To see something that hasn’t seen the light of day in 65 million years is good fun,” Hartshorn said. “You can get hooked, it’s very addictive.”

Hartshorn is one of the 50 people who have signed up for digs throughout this year, and at $150 per person, that means a lot of increased revenue to make Glenrock’s museum a hotter tourist attraction.

More than 22 years ago, the skull of a triceratops was found in the Powder River Basin by Smith, and placed as a main exhibit in the museum. However, in recent years, the energy industry has declined, lowering the economy, and leaving the museum to suffer financially. Although, with this collaboration from the Morrison museum, more events will be offered through the dig sites in Glenrock.

“With our guidance, they can excavate these fossils themselves,” Stuart McCrary said, another director of Glenrock’s paleontology museum.

The dig site is tentatively planned to be excavated this summer, but, depending on what is found, it could be stretched out longer.

“This next year is going to be important,” Mossbrucker said. “The Paleon is going to be a vibrant museum.”

The Paleon has been a topic of discussion this year. Work sessions are still in progress to decide the lease for the building and Glenrock Mayor Doug Frank sees them making a positive mark within the community, despite economic changes in the region.

“It (the Paleon) has tremendous potential, and like most volunteer-based operations, lives with the difficulty in growing their ‘outreach,” open hours and increasing traffic to the museum,” Frank said. “I would use the example of the dig that they hosted last weekend as truly encouraging. We have a responsibility to use taxpayer funds wisely, and investing in historical and cultural attractions that bring traffic to Glenrock (and benefit our local folks) certainly count.”

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Glenrock Independent

Physical Address:
207 S 4th, Glenrock, WY 82637

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PO Box 109, Douglas, WY 82633

Phone: (307) 436-2211

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