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Wyoming Dinosaurs

Traveling Wyoming: Wyoming Has Always Had The ‘Perfect Conditions’ for Fossils

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

A plesiosaur named “Harold” made international news last week as the only member of its species to have been unearthed. Its discovery near Glenrock raises the question: Why are so many fossils found here in Wyoming?

For decades, fossils have been found on Wyoming lands. In 1877, employees of the Union Pacific Railroad found large bones peeking out of the hills at Como Bluff near Medicine Bow. Since then, thousands of fossils have been unearthed across the state.

Two fossil experts – one a paleontologist who has spent decades researching discoveries in Wyoming, and the other a lifelong Wyoming resident whose family owns a fossil quarry near Kemmerer – explained that Wyoming’s geological history created the perfect conditions for preservation millions of years ago.

Fossil Beds Abound

“Badlands around Glenrock are not a single bone bed,” said paleontologist Dr. Scott Persons, whose research identified the Serpentisuchops pfisterae as the only animal of its kind to have been discovered in the world. “It’s not just a single graveyard; rather, it is sequential layer after layer after layer of rock, usually sandstone.”

Persons told Cowboy State Daily that skeletons of dinosaurs can be found in the different layers throughout the badlands near Glenrock.

“Not dinosaurs that all died together in one mass event or something like that,” he clarified. “Rather, dinosaurs that died out gradually over the long course of their lives, living in the area for many millions of years.”

In the Green River Formation in southwest Wyoming, which is where Ulrich’s Fossil Gallery is located, the bluffs contain rich deposits of fossils throughout the entire Kemmerer area.

“The Green River Formation was an inland freshwater lake that was deposited roughly 50 to 55 million years ago,” said Paul Ulrich, whose family owns a quarry rich with fossilized fish.

“Lots of fish – freshwater stingrays, garfish – if you’re lucky the occasional bird or fossilized palm frond or turtle,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “A great variety.”

Perfect Conditions

Persons said that 70 million years ago, the earth was experiencing prehistoric global warming. High sea levels flooded North America’s inland regions, which is why sea creatures are often found in Wyoming’s sandstone formations.

He said in the case of the Serpentisuchops pfisterae, which was discovered in the badlands near Glenrock, when the animal died, its body sank down to the bottom of the sea floor and was covered by fine grain sediments.

“(Those) did a wonderful job of beautifully preserving the specimen,” he said. “This is ultimately sediment that was probably being washed down into the environment from the early Rocky Mountains, as the Rocky Mountains were beginning to form to the west. It’s just a great place for fossils to be preserved.”

Persons explained that fossilization only happens in the right environmental conditions, in which bones can sink down and are buried quickly.

“There must have been dinosaurs living on the tops of mountains, there must have been dinosaurs living in very, very dense forests,” he said. “But those are not environments where you can get fossilization occurring, because if you die on the mountain, your skeleton erodes away, along with everything else. 

“Die in a dense forest, and there’s no loose sediment there to bury you. And there are all sorts of microbes and little organisms that eat your body up really, really quickly, including the bones, before you’ve got a chance to be preserved.”

Ulrich pointed out that Wyoming’s winds play a large part in fossil discoveries.

“The incredible exposure to the elements that we have – in particular wind, rain and snow – conditions are ripe for exposure of a wide variety of sedimentary rock that is fossil bearing,” he said.

Dinosaur Digs Around the State

There are locations all around Wyoming where amateurs can try their hands at uncovering mysteries that have been buried underneath millions of tons of sediment over millions of years.

From the Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis to the Paleon Museum in Glenrock to Fossil Butte National Monument near Kemmerer, remnants of eons past can be unearthed by regular folk, not just scientists.

At the Dinosaur Center, visitors can “dig for a day” at active excavation sites that are within driving distance of the center. Staff and visitors have removed more than 14,000 bones from the excavation sites, mostly from long-necked sauropods, but an abundance of allosaurus teeth have been found at all of the nearby quarries. 

Ulrich’s Fossil Gallery, which was founded in the 1940s by Ulrich’s grandparents, offers professionally guided fossil digging tours in the Green River Formation.

“Throughout the summer, we take guests up to experience the glory of finding your own fossil fish,” he said. 

But because the Ulrich quarry is on state land, visitors can’t always keep what they dig up.

“Anything rare and unusual we find, we turn over to the state of Wyoming for further scientific studies,” said Ulrich.

Persons said a dig led by the Glenrock Paleon Museum is where he found his first dinosaur bone, and was hooked.

“That was way back when I was in elementary school,” he said. “The Paleon at the time, and they still do, offer the opportunities for families to contact them and to arrange to be taken out on some of the local digs.”

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Glenrock Dinosaur Gets National Attention For Being One-Of-A-Kind And “Remarkably Intact”

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Serpentisuchops pfisterae is the scientific name for the remarkably intact, 7-meter-long fossil that was found in 1995 and has been at the Paleon Museum in Glenrock for the last 15 years.

But locals just call him “Harold.”

And just this week, Harold’s place in history was set with the publishing of a scientific paper identifying the fossil as a one-of-a-kind polycotylid plesiosaur from the Cretaceous period of about 101 million to 66 million years ago.

The paleontologist who published the paper, Dr. Scott Persons, told Cowboy State Daily he’s not surprised that Harold is drawing national attention. 

“It’s a really, really cool animal,” said Persons. “It’s got a fun appearance to it, and it has this neat evolutionary story to tell.”

An illustration of what the Serpentisuchops pfisterae may have looked like with the fossilized bones superimposed.

Harold and the Glenrock Bone Biddies

In 1995, landowner Anna Pfister contacted the Paleon Museum in Glenrock about a fossil discovered on her land. 

“The Pfister family owned the land where the specimen was found,” said Persons. “And rather than making the decision to try to sell the animal at auction or something like that, she decided to donate it to be studied by science and to go on display for the children of Wyoming.”

Don Smith, executive director of the museum, said Pfister dug the fossil out of the ground herself before bringing it in.

“She actually had it all jacketed up in a field jacket, and she walked through the door wanting to keep Wyoming dinosaurs in Wyoming,” said Smith. “And we got to know her, and she has entrusted us with what turns out to be one of a kind.”

According to Persons, who has studied the unique plesiosaur at the Paleon Museum since childhood, a group of volunteers at the museum did the delicate work of cleaning up the fossil for the display.

“The folks that did the work preparing the specimen, cleaning it up, really chiseling away all the rock that was still encrusted around the bones, that was done by the volunteer team at the Paleon Museum,” he said. “And that team largely consists of a group of elderly ladies from the Glenrock community that are affectionately referred to as the ‘Glenrock Bone Biddies.’”

The prehistoric fossil was found on Anna Pfister’s property in 1995.

The Paleon Connection

Since he was a young boy, Persons has been fascinated by dinosaurs. When he was in elementary school, his parents allowed him to take a trip to Wyoming for his first fossil hunt.

“The Glenrock Paleon Museum at the time – and they still do – offer the opportunities for families to contact them and to arrange to be taken out on some of the local digs,” said Persons. “It’s where I went on my very first dinosaur hunting expedition. It’s where I found my first chunk of dinosaur bone, and that was way back when I was in elementary school.” 

Although he’s known about the uniqueness of the Glenrock plesiosaur, only in the last few years has he had the personal resources and connections to introduce Harold to the rest of the world.

“The challenge with Harold has been getting the specimen to the stage of preparation that it can be scientifically studied – that it can be photographed, that measurements can be taken,” said Persons, who is a professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “And it’s taken a while for me to get to a position where I’m free to pursue my own research interests and to start up my own research program.”

On Sept. 26, the journal iScience published the details of the Serpentisuchops Pfisterae (which Persons said means “serpentine crocodile face,” with the second part of the name a nod to the landowner, Anna Pfister) – and since then, the Paleon Museum has seen a little more activity.

“Last Thursday, we had zero visitors in,” Smith said. “Just this morning, we had seven visitors. We had several in here from Glenrock and Casper that had heard about the find and they showed up to see it.”

What Makes Harold Special

Persons said that the Paleon Museum’s specimen is quite different from other plesiosaurs that have been found in the area.

“It’s got this incredible series of perfectly articulated neck vertebrae,” said Persons. “The bones in the animal’s neck are laid out just as they would have been in life, they’re not all a jumble, they’re not out of position. And of course, the animal also has a beautiful lower jaw that shows off this long, crocodile-like form, and that really is strange.”

Persons said traditionally, plesiosaurs have been divided into specimens that have short necks and long, crocodile-like snouts; and those with small heads, short jaws and long necks. 

“And Harold just straddles both of those categories,” said Persons. “And it defies traditional classification.”

An artist’s rendering of what the Serpentisuchops pfisterae may have looked like.

More In Store For the Paleon

Smith said the number of visitors to the Paleon Museum have been down this year so far, but that might change with the attention Persons is bringing to the small-town natural history museum.

“Just this year alone, we’ve probably had 2,500 different visitors in here,” said Smith. “I’ve had them in here from 14 different countries, and I get to visit with people from literally every state in the union.”

And Persons said the Paleon has more stars in its collection than just the unique plesiosaur. In fact, he’s taking a group of his students to the Geological Society of America’s annual conference in Denver, at which they will present several specimens from the Glenrock museum.

“We will be presenting on the wing of a pterosaur that was found at the same spot (as Harold),” he said. “We will be presenting on some of the horned dinosaur material that’s dug up right there in Glenrock. We will be presenting on a pterosaur trackway. And we will be presenting on a beautiful, beautiful prehistoric turtle shell.”

But a detour to tiny Glenrock, Wyoming, is the only way to see for yourself the one-of-a-kind dinosaur fossil found and dug up by a landowner, and cared for by the Bone Biddies.

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Giant T-Rex’s Roamed Wyoming in Packs Like Jurassic Gangs

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Tyrannosaurus Rex. Just the name conjures up images of toothy monsters stalking prey, the lone wolves of the prehistoric plains.

But that may be the wrong picture of the carnivore that once roamed Wyoming. In fact, the dinosaur first discovered in the Cowboy State may have been more of a social animal.

And that comes as no surprise to a renowned Wyoming dinosaur expert.

“The big meat eaters – and tyrannosaurs in particular – seem to have shown evidence of what we call ‘gregarious’ behavior,” said Andrew Rossi, who worked for almost eight years at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis.

While the most recent discoveries lending credence to the idea that Tyrannosaurus Rexes hunted in groups came from Utah, the first T-Rex fossils ever found were discovered in Wyoming, said Rossi, who served as a consultant on the movie “The Good Dinosaur,” which was set in Wyoming.

“The very first T-Rex bones were found in Wyoming,” he explains. “They weren’t identified at first as T-Rex, but they were found around Newcastle close to a century ago.”

Researchers originally believed the giant predator hunted alone, but recent information published by paleontologists indicates T-Rexes may actually have been pack hunters.

Seven years ago, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, a team of researchers from Arkansas studying a mass tyrannosaur death site determined that the giant reptiles may have, in fact, all lived and died in the same place at the same time.

According to an article in The Guardian, the Utah site is actually the third mass tyrannosaur death site discovered in North America, bolstering a theory of “social tyrannosaurs” that was first posed around 20 years ago. 

The theory emerged after more than a dozen of the fossilized beasts were discovered at a site in Alberta, Canada, and was given more life when another mass death site was found in Montana.

Rossi said the idea of large predators hunting solo is actually based on what he calls “mammal assumptions.”

“We assume that the smaller meat eating animals hunt in groups to take that bigger prey, and the bigger ones are solitary – because that’s largely how big mammal carnivores do it,” Rossi said. “Bears are solitary, most big cats are solitary, but wolves and dogs and other animals hunt in groups — so we assumed dinosaurs may have operated the same way, not necessarily based on scientific evidence, just logical assumptions.”

Rossi said given the number of fossil discoveries made in Wyoming in the past, it is very possible that future groundbreaking research could occur inside the state rather than in Utah or Montana.

He noted that in all, 500 million years’ worth of fossilized creatures, from stegosaurus to diplodocus to triceratops to allosaurus, have been discovered in the state since the 1870s.

“Hopefully Wyoming will contribute to more of those revolutionary discoveries,” Rossi notes. “We know that this stuff’s out there, we know there’s more to find. And hopefully in the future, instead of hearing about everything coming out of Utah and Montana, you’ll hear more about the remarkable stuff that’s happening in Wyoming – because it is.”

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