A Dinosaur’s Home: Then and Now
Marmarth, North Dakota: 67 million years ago,
the Late Cretaceous Period
The surroundings were a subtropical paradise, and lush plant life covered the ground. The area was teeming with dinosaurs. These creatures came in many shapes and sizes, but one species in particular stood out from the rest. Hadrosaurs, plant eaters or herbivores, were common dinosaurs then, but they would go on to have an important role in advancing the science of paleontology with the discovery of the mummified hadrosaur called “Dakota.”
Marmarth, North Dakota: Today
Step on top of a butte, and it is difficult to imagine a tropical landscape. The sun bakes down onto the dry, rugged hills of the Badlands. Marmarth is a small town located in the southwest corner of the state. The Marmarth area is one of many spots to dig dinosaurs in North Dakota and is a prime spot for discovering fossils. With a little digging, it unveils the history of the Late Cretaceous Period and stories of the mysterious dinosaurs.
The muted colors on the hillsides hide many treasures, though few have sought them. For one young man, however, digging up dinosaurs and dreams has been part of his life for many years.
Digging Up Dinosaurs and Dreams
Many young people are interested in dinosaurs, but that passion can slowly die as they grow older. Few have the opportunity, nor the ambition, to regularly shoulder a backpack, gaze out over the vast Badlands and set out to find dinosaur remains. Tyler Lyson was a fortunate boy to grow up in Marmarth.
Lyson’s passion for dinosaurs started early in life. At six years of age, he was already starting to dig. While hunting rabbits, he came across the jaw of a duck-billed dinosaur. “I kept it in a shoebox and showed it to paleontologists passing through,” Lyson remembers. He showed them that he knew a fair amount about dinosaurs for his age, and he showed himself that his interest in finding the secrets to dinosaurs would never wane.
In 1999, when a mere sophomore in high school, Lyson stumbled upon the discovery of a lifetime. While out searching for dinosaur remains, he came upon something remarkable. He saw the tailbones of a duck-billed dinosaur, called a hadrosaur. This, in and of itself, was not anything special as fossil discoveries go. However, this specimen had hexagonal and rounded scales. Its shape and form were still intact. It was a dinomummy.
Work did not progress on excavating “Dakota,” Lyson’s nickname for the dinosaur, until 2004. “You don’t know until you start what you will find,” Lyson says. “At first, it didn’t look like it would be a whole dinosaur.”
Further work revealed that the dinosaur was indeed a complete specimen, and the skin impressions found on the dinosaur made the find scientifically important. A crew of paleontologists descended upon Marmarth, along with a team from the National Geographic Society, to document the entire process, from excavating the dinosaur to researching it microscopically. The National Geographic Channel produced a television documentary called Dino Autopsy, which first aired in December 2007, and detailed the full project. A DVD of the show is now available for purchase.
Paleontologists say there are several reasons why the discovery of “Dakota” is significant. First, “Dakota” is almost completely intact. Most of its body was preserved, indicating that during the time of its death, it was quickly buried. Second, it has fossilized skin, which makes it one of the rarest fossils in the world. “Preservation of skin occurs rarely and only a few mummified dinosaurs have ever been found,” says Dr. John Hoganson, the state paleontologist with the North Dakota Geological Survey.
Because its skin envelope did not collapse, “Dakota” will help unlock the secrets of the species. “It’s not the answers you get, but the questions you raise,” says Dr. Phillip Manning, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester in England, one of the central paleontologists studying “Dakota.” “It has yielded so many questions. It will take a lifetime and many paleontologists to unlock its mysteries.”
“Dakota” now resides at the North Dakota Heritage Center because Lyson wanted to keep the fossil in his home state. Parts of “Dakota” are on display; the rest of it is one level below in the North Dakota Geological Survey paleontology lab, where dutiful professionals and volunteers work to eliminate the 67 million years of hard-baked rock that hide the skin envelope beneath.
The Marmarth Research Foundation
The Marmarth Research Foundation is helping to discover lost worlds and forgotten lives. Lyson and his family created the foundation for three primary reasons – education, curation of fossils and research on fossil materials. Each year, the Marmarth Research Foundation hosts seven weeks of field work in the Hell Creek Formation. Lyson is there to lead the troops of excited volunteers on the hunt for dinosaur discoveries. Over the course of the summer, nearly 90 people sign up for the experience.
One group gathered in early August 2008 for a dinosaur dig. Volunteers and staff from 15 different states – California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin – and one foreign country, Australia, met at the bunkhouse for instructions for the day. The volunteers, ranging in age from 14 to 81, were split into three different groups, each led by a member of the Marmarth Research Foundation staff.
Lyson led his group to “Skybox,” a Triceratops site located northwest of Marmarth at the end of a long, dusty trail. Once the trail ended, the crew climbed out of pickups and began the hike a fair distance away to the top of a butte. The Triceratops waiting there was quite a find. “A small one this complete is very rare,” says Lou Tremblay, a staff person with the Marmarth Research Foundation for 11 years. “This particular skull has its occipital bone, the bone that connects the skull to the backbone, and brow horns intact.”
Tremblay has only seen three Triceratops skulls so nicely preserved. “Triceratops is the most common dinosaur to find, followed by the hadrosaur and
T rex,” Lyson explains. “However, this site is rare, because the skull is so articulated. Typical Triceratops sites have the bones scattered across a wide area and must be assembled inside a lab.”
On this day Lyson prepared the skeleton to be put in a field jacket and taken to the lab. Carefully, the skull was undercut and then wrapped with a separator, doubled aluminum foil, that acts as a protection for the actual specimen. Cavities are filled in with crumpled foil. Next, it is covered with strips of burlap soaked in plaster. Every effort is made to make the plaster strips smooth and tight. “The Marmarth Research Foundation has three rules for a field jacket – smooth, tight and sexy,” Lyson explains. “This field jacket is the skeleton’s only protection, and it is imperative that it is done well to prevent damage during its journey to the lab.”
The Marmarth Research Foundation lab might look simple from the outside, but on the inside, it is every inch a professional lab. “Our lab can do any kind of fossil preparation work,” Lyson says, and it holds the mysteries of hadrosaurs, Triceratops and turtles, among others.
Another site where the Marmarth Research Foundation is digging is called the “Turtle Graveyard.” “It is perhaps one of the most significant discoveries we have made, as we have discovered many new, previously undiscovered, species of turtles,” Lyson says. More than 75 individual turtles have been found at this location, and three new species have been identified.
Lyson: A Young Person Who ‘Rocks’
Lyson will spend a lifetime unlocking the secrets of “Dakota,” but his focus is not solely on this discovery. He has much broader visions for his life work in paleontology. He divides his time between the east and the west. In the summertime, he devotes seven weeks to Marmarth. The rest of the year is spent at Yale University, where he is studying for his doctorate and working on his dissertation about turtles and soft tissue preservation in dinosaur structures.
He has several papers in review with scientific journals. Only 26 years old, Lyson has a lifetime of discovery ahead of him in the field of paleontology. “My dream is to find a job as a museum curator or professor and continue to build the Marmarth Research Foundation, culminating in a collection of specimens in a museum and research center in Marmarth someday.”
In more ways than one, Lyson is the personification of “Young People Who Rock.” Just ask CNN. The Cable News Network featured Lyson on its Young People Who Rock segment last April, which can still be found online at http://ypwr.blogs.cnn.com/2008/04/.
Both “Dakota” and Lyson have made national news. Two books have been written about “Dakota.” The first, Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs: Soft Tissue and Hard Science by Manning, complements the National Geographic Dino Autopsy television documentary. The second is geared more toward children. Also written by Manning, with a forward by Lyson, is Dinomummy: The Life, Death, and Discovery of Dakota, A Dinosaur From Hell Creek, which shows young and old alike the mysteries behind the discovery and teaches them about the creatures that lived during “Dakota’s” time.
“Tyler is a burning light for paleontology,” Manning says, and anyone who keys “Tyler Lyson” into Google’s search engine will find more than 15 pages that feature him and his discovery of “Dakota.”
Lyson’s determination and drive to follow his dreams, first kindled as a young boy, are inspiring to all interested in paleontology and other pursuits. “Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish great things,” says Lyson. “Young people can do a lot of things, if they put their minds to it.”
More about Lyson and the Marmarth Research Foundation can be found at www.mrfdigs.com.