CODY — There's always a chance someone can find something amazing in their own backyard, but those living near Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin probably aren't aware of how amazing their backyard is from a prehistoric perspective.
That was one of the main points made by paleontologist Jason Schein during a Lunchtime Expedition, a monthly lecture presented at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. A standing-room-only audience attended the noon-hour presentation "Dinosaur Paleontology in the Bighorn Basin" on Thursday.
Schein is the Executive Director of the Elevation Science Institute, an organization that brings people from around the world to the Bighorn Basin to find fossils in active dinosaur dig sites. His teams have been digging in the region since 2010.
"We used to be the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute," Schein told the Cowboy State Daily. "We changed the name for many reasons - one of them being that most people probably can't pronounce 'paleontological.'"
Schein has traveled the world to study fossils from many different prehistoric animals. But he continues to find the most opportunity in the Bighorn Basin. That's why his colleagues followed him to the Bighorn Basin.
"We came out here to dig up a dinosaur in 2015," Schein said, "and haven't left since."
Jurassic Dinosaurs ‘North the Line’
Elevation Science is currently working at the Anderson Site near Bridger, Montana. Over 3,000 bones have been found in the site, dating back to the Late Jurassic Period (150 million years ago.)
The rock preserving the fossils is known as the Morrison Formation, which Schein described as "the most studied rock unit in paleontology." But most of that research comes from fossils and locations "south of the line."
Using a map, Schein showed that most Morrison research for the last 150 years has been done with discoveries from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and southern Wyoming. Meanwhile, the area "north of the line," which includes northern Wyoming and southern Montana, is comparatively unknown.
The Bighorn Basin is "north of the line," making it an exciting place for Schein and his team to dig.
"(Everybody) took it for granted," Schein said. "(They said) 'It's just Morrison. We'll just find more of the same thing.' But we're not. We're finding different things."
One example is Suuwassea ("first thunder" in Crow language), a long-necked sauropod similar to Brontosaurus. But despite a century-and-half of Morrison dinosaur discoveries, Suuwassea has only been found in the Bighorn Basin.
Schien proudly shared a photo of him behind a sauropod tail, with the bones still connected as they would have been when the dinosaur was alive. He believes (and hopes) the tail belongs to the second specimen of Suuwassea. To date, only one skeleton of the Bighorn Basin-exclusive dinosaur has been identified.
But the paleontologists and citizen scientists of Elevation Science aren't just "trophy hunters." The team collects rocks and other specimens so they can do thorough scientific analysis of the site and the region.
Fossils excavated by Elevation Science go to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for scientific study and preparation (the process of removing rock "matrix" from fossils.) All the specimens find a permanent home at the Cincinnati Museum Center in Ohio.
Prehistory Makes History In The Bighorn Basin
Paleontologists already flock to Wyoming for its fantastic paleontological resources. But many Wyomingites don't know that discoveries from the Bighorn Basin are amongst the most significant in the history of science.
In addition to discussing the ongoing work of Elevation Science, Schein took time to share "completely revolutionary" fossils found in the Bighorn Basin. Many of those fossils changed the field of paleontology forever.
The discovery of Deinonychus, a close relative of Velociraptor, sparked "the Golden Age" of dinosaur paleontology, proving dinosaurs are the warm-blooded ancestors of modern birds. And Deinonychus was also found near Bridger in 1969.
More recently, gastroliths (polished stones from the guts of long-necked dinosaurs like Suuwassea) found in the Bighorn Basin provide the best scientific evidence of dinosaur migration.
Even some of the earliest primate fossils have been found in the Bighorn Basin. Nearly microscopic teeth of Teilhardina, a mouse-sized ancestor of modern primates found near Worland, are the oldest primate fossils in North America (56 million years old) and possibly the oldest in the world.
The reason for the richness is the region's unique geology.
Schein described the Bighorn Basin as "a giant bowl" formed as mountains forced their way up, bending and exposing the underlying rock layers. Unlike most other places on the planet, over 500 million years of rock layers are exposed and easily accessible in the basin.
"You can stand in the middle and walk in any direction and walk over the tops of the older layers that used to be thousands of feet down in the ground, Schein said. For example, rock layers exposed on the basin's western edge would be four miles underground anywhere else.
For most of that time, the region was covered by rivers or oceans, which are the conditions needed for fossil preservation. That explains why so many prehistoric plants and animals are found there.
"This is what makes the Bighorn Basin so special. A natural laboratory for scientists to flock to, which they have for over a hundred years."
And flocking they are.
Bigger Pride For Bighorn Basin Fossils
Museums worldwide know the Bighorn Basin's potential and come out every year to find more fossils for their collections. Schein said the Smithsonian Institution, Adelphi University, and the University of Michigan are amongst several organizations with paleontology teams in the region this summer.
He also mentioned the highly secretive "Jurassic Mile," an excavation near Shell and Greybull being dug by the Indianapolis Children's Museum and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center from the Netherlands.
During a post-presentation Q&A, many people asked Schein about the Jurassic Mile and what's being found there. Schein said the museums are finding "incredible stuff" but didn't know much about their dinosaur digs and felt he shouldn't share much more.
"They are very, very secretive about that site. I'm really not supposed to acknowledge its existence."
Even Elevation Science needs to keep its secrets. The Anderson Site is located on B.L.M. land. Being too candid about any site's location could lead to theft and vandalism of the fossils preserved there.
Schein said he can take a photo of fossils in the ground and a photo of the landscape. But he cannot take a photo of fossils with the landscape in the same shot.
"Someone could use the landscape to identify where we're working," Schein said.
But despite the secrecy of specific digs and discoveries, the prehistoric potential of the Bighorn Basin is no secret. Schein feels everyone in northwest Wyoming (and Wyoming as a whole) should know how important their home is to the science of paleontology.
"I want people to understand what an amazing scientific resource they have in their backyard, so they'll be proud of it," Schein said.
That backyard continues to give tremendous discoveries to the science of paleontology. And there's so much more waiting to be found.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at email@example.com.