Paleontology display goes to the Visitors Center
By Jack Dura
Farmer Staff Writer
Jeff Person snapped his fingers to show how short four million years is.
Standing next to the Long X Trading Post Visitor Center’s newly installed fossil display of the Little Missouri National Grassland, the North Dakota Geological Survey paleontologist said the creatures in the case represent “a geologic snapshot.”
“A geologic time snapshot might be … two, three, four million years but in geologic time, it’s instantaneous,” Person said. “Over a 4.5 billion-year history of the planet, four million years is nothing.”
Centered around North Dakota’s largest petrified stump—an 8.5-ton, 60 million-year-old bald cypress—the exhibit showcases fossilized remains of the flora and fauna that lived and breathed on the grassland during the Paleocene.
“This is right after the dinosaurs have gone extinct,” said Clint Boyd, NDGS senior paleontologist.
The stump is a centerpiece of the display, Boyd added, as it was discovered 30 miles south of Watford City with fossils found washed around the site, animals like those in the glass display case.
A humid, swampy landscape similar to Florida’s Everglades covered western North Dakota, Boyd said, as depicted in a large painting hung over the exhibit. A tree like the one in the visitor center grows from the water in the painting’s scene, surrounded by ancient animals like crocodilians and various birds and plants.
A crocodile skull even graces the exhibit, a fairly intact fossil lined with blackened teeth, its snout still visible.
“This one is still mostly intact. You look at it, it looks like a croc skull … It’s a really nice specimen,” Boyd said, adding some skulls are often heavily crushed or fall apart and spread out.
Crocodiles existed in North Dakota until about 34 million years ago, Boyd said, when the swampy landscape gave way to a cooler, drier savanna in a climate change.
“That drying just doesn’t lend itself well to having crocodiles and things like that,” Boyd said, such as softshell turtles, a species with its shell on display in the exhibit. The shell is missing only some pieces and is all supported by plaster.
Some animals in the showcase can still be found in North Dakota, like bowfin, garfish and freshwater clams, while other animal groups still exist here too, like turtles.
“These animals could have all survived over millions of years,” Person said.
Finding fossils on the grassland isn’t easy said Kim Grotte of the U.S. Forest Service.
“You have to have a pretty good eye for things,” he said. Grotte helped in the excavation of the cypress stump before it was lowered by crane into the visitor center during construction.
The static exhibit of vertebrates, invertebrates and plants made its new home at the visitor center Wednesday, when Boyd and Person finished installing wall hangings.
“This kind of gives (newer residents) an unknown history of the climate and what was here 60, 55 million years ago,” Grotte said.
The project has been a partnered effort between the NDGS and the U.S. Forest Service, Boyd said, adding the move to the visitor center has been in the works for a year after a remodel at the Forest Service office.
“They get a lot of traffic in here with the museum,” Grotte said.
In the interim, the fossils got cleaned up for better exposure. The exhibit’s signage was also redone after a decade of showcase at the Forest Service office. The NDGS also renumbered the specimens and placed them in a new covered case, different from the old days when the display had no upper cover.
“We didn’t want that open case where you could just reach over and help yourself,” Boyd said.
Now the fossils’ home is the Long X Trading Post Visitor Center, where people can look through the glass at what once walked, swam, grew and lived on the modern grassland.
“We want to represent an environment,” Person said. “…We’re able to educate the public on what’s happening in their state and what has happened in their state.”
“No longer is it just the tree,” Boyd added. “Now it’s the tree and you get to see many of the things that lived with the tree.”