Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute Celebrates Its First Year

By Jason P. Schein, Executive Director, Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute

You last heard from us around this same time last year, when the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute was a mere one month old.  Now only a year old, we still feel like the new kids on the block, but at the same time, boy, have we been through and learned a lot!  I couldn’t possibly list all of our accomplishments, so let me describe just a few.

We hit the ground running after our launch in February, and jumped right into the deep end of spring outreach season.  Within just a few weeks, after giving talks, attending great events like Paleopalooza at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and participating in several Philadelphia Science Festival events, we had already educated and reached thousands of people in the tri-state Philadelphia region.  In just the ten months we operated in 2017, well over 4,500 people across the country knew more about fossils, paleontology, earth science, and their world, thanks to our education and outreach programs.

Then of course, we jumped right into the summer field season.  Almost 40 people from across the U.S. and the U.K. joined our team of paleontologists and educators in the northern Bighorn Basin of Montana and Wyoming.  Throughout the 2017 field season, we focused on the Jurassic Morrison Formation, and it did not disappoint.  Our primary site revealed new, associated, and so far unidentified sauropod material, and a new locality close by, named “LZ Blue,” is already both promising and extremely exciting.  Within a moderately-sized, 250 lb jacket, we’ve already collected three articulated cervical and one distal caudal vertebrae and an articulated tibia & fibula, all from Allosaurus, as well as an Apatosaurus phalanx, Camarasaurus vertebra, and crocodile vertebrae.  Even more impressive is that the remains are exceptionally well preserved.  This wasn’t even the big surprise of the summer, though.

Exposing an Allosaurus fibula at “LZ Blue”

Early in the season, one of the BBPI staff members learned that another Morrison Formation site – the Mother’s Day Quarry – was on the way to our main field site.  With permission from the Bureau of Land Management, we decided to make a quick visit one morning.  This site is famous because in the 14 years it was actively quarried, over 3,500 bones were collected.  It’s also worth noting that every single one of those 3,500 bones, minus just a handful of theropod teeth, are from juvenile Diplodocus.  We dropped in on this site, expecting just a quick visit with little to see or do.  The Mother’s Day Site had other ideas, though, and within moments of arriving we were finding bone.  Everywhere.  Some had clearly been partially excavated by those previous crews and covered over, and others were newly exposed.  All were in immediate danger of being weathered and eroded, lost forever, by the elements.

Intertwined ribs at the Mother’s Day Site

Once again, with the BLM’s blessing, we collected these materials at or very near the surface, and once again, Mother’s Day had other ideas.  Almost every single bone we uncovered led to one, two, or six other bones.  It was impossible to excavate one without running into multiple others, and sometimes there were so many intertwined  ribs, the site looked more like a series of giant keltic knots than a dinosaur quarry.  The most difficult job of the 2017 field season was figuring out how not to collect too many bones.

The true highlight of the season, though, had little to do with fossils, though.  For two weeks, we had Honorary Expedition Leaders: two boys joined us, with their families, as part of the Make-A-Wish program.  It was their wish that they become paleontologists and dig up dinosaurs for a week, and that’s exactly what happened.  One of them even found the first and only dinosaur skin impression this seasoned paleontologist has ever seen in person!  It was the thrill of a lifetime for that 11 year old boy, and the look on his face was the thrill of a lifetime for this 39 year old boy.  Most important of all, I’m happy to report, is that both boys are now in remission, with clean bills of health!

Max, one of our two Honorary Expedition Leaders, helping to load up a fossil jacket.

We ended the season by transporting back to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University dozens of fossil jackets, containing many more individual fossils.  We could not have collected any more than we did in the six-week season.  However, we were also hampered by not having an excavation permit from the BLM.  We won’t make that mistake again – our permit applications for the 2018 season are being processed and many people have already signed up to join our field teams this summer.  With permits in hand, many more team members, and perhaps as many as three proven bonebeds to attack, 2018 is shaping up to be a banner year in the field.

In truth, there is no real education and outreach “season,” because both of those go hand-in hand, and are incorporated into everything we do.  Our Dinosaur Treasures In Our Backyards program brought BBPI paleontologists to the Boys and Girls Club of Carbon County (Montana) during our field season to teach rural children of that region about paleontology, earth science, and the enormous contributions their home region has made to the history of paleontology.  Thanks to four separate grants, that program will return this year, and expand to additional summer programs in the region.

Fall was at least as busy as spring and summer, though from the outside it may not have appeared that way.  There were fewer talks, festivals, and public events, fortunately, because this is the season of BLM annual reports, grant reports, searches and proposals, and believe it or not, preparation for the next field season already!  Of course the lab at the Academy of Natural Sciences was busy preparing and curating our first specimens, with more exciting discoveries along the way.

Now, as we’ve entered our second year, we have come full circle.  2018 is shaping up to be a lot like 2017, just bigger, better, all the way around.  It’s already been an incredible adventure, and we hope you’ll join along for the ride, whether that’s by following us on social media, joining our email list, or becoming part of our field team!

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