New Characters in a Long History of Bighorn Basin Paleontology

By Jason P. Schein

The Bighorn Basin of northern Wyoming and southern Montana preserves a nearly continuous record of sedimentation from the Cambrian (520 million years ago) to the most recent Ice Age (18,000 years ago), with some rocks dating to 2.5 billion years! In the deepest portions of the basin, those sedimentary rocks reach a thickness of over 17,000 feet, while at the surface, the effects of climate and time have worked together over millennia to carve some of the most spectacular landscapes anywhere.

BBPI Assistant Crew Chief, Brittany Malinowski
BBPI Assistant Crew Chief, Brittany Malinowski
Oscar (L) and Scott(R), 1887
Oscar (L) and Scott(R), 1887

Thanks in large part to these features, the Bighorn Basin has long been recognized not just as a natural laboratory for geological and paleontological studies, but, in fact, among the finest laboratories in the world. For nearly a century and a half, earth scientists of all stripes have been exploring the region.  Delegations from Princeton University were among the first visitors with fossils on their minds, and included some of the most distinguished personalities from the early days of paleontology.  As students at Princeton, Walter Berryman Scott and Henry Fairfield Osborn were part of the first expedition to the area in 1884, followed shortly after by Scott’s students William J. Sinclair and Walter Granger.  Into the 20th Century other groups took an interest, but a long and continuous line of Princeton paleontologists continued to dominate the scientific efforts in the basin.  Even long after the university moved away from paleontology, former students continued to carry the torch, even into the second decade of the 21st century.

Enter 2017, and a new team is helping to lead the charge of Bighorn Basin paleontology. The Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute is a new nonprofit organization dedicated to paleontology and earth science research and education.  It is our mission to “collaboratively study, actively preserve, and dynamically interpret the paleontological treasures of the Bighorn Basin and the surrounding region, as well as to promote paleontology and the natural sciences to life-long learners, wherever they may be.”  They are professional and student paleontologists, geoscientists, and educators that believe in the power of collaborative, multidisciplinary research and citizen science.  We offer people of all ages, backgrounds, and interest levels, the opportunity to work with us in the field, contributing to decades-long research projects, in one of the most rugged and beautiful parts of the world!

The BBPI’s staff have been working together in the Bighorn Basin for several years, and the new formal organization will continue their research interests: to reconstruct and understand the ecosystems preserved in the basin’s strata, to the greatest extent possible.  Traditionally, they have focused on the fascinating and complicated great biotic and ecosystem transitions of the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary.  More recently, they have had tremendous success in the famously fossil-rich Morrison Formation.  While heavily studied farther south, the ecosystems of the Morrison in this region are far less understood.  Occasionally they even make forays into the Paleozoic, collecting early armored Devonian fish at 9,500’ elevation at the beautiful Beartooth Butte. All fossils will be reposited at the distinguished Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University – the oldest museum in the New World!

Field Team
Field Team

The BBPI believes that research and education are two sides of the same coin, and we take our responsibility as science educators and spokespeople very seriously. They have already partnered with a diverse set of education-focused groups, including the Boys and Girls Club, Rocky Mountain College, and Field Station: Dinosaurs.  All of these collaborations will provide opportunities for engaging public programming, both in and out of the field, and even give college students the opportunity to earn college credit.

BBPI Director of Educational Programming, Dr. Rick Schmidt, excavating a juvenile Triceratops horn and partial frill.
BBPI Director of Educational Programming, Dr. Rick Schmidt, excavating a juvenile Triceratops horn and partial frill.

The Bighorn Basin has a long and distinguished history of paleontological exploration.  The BBPI feels a great deal of responsibility to not only continue that tradition, but also to contribute to it in a meaningful way.  Just as importantly, we also have a great deal of pride that we’ll have an opportunity to share the paleontological treasures that the region has to offer to so many people from around the country and the world.

Participants in our summer field expedition, excavating a Jurassic sauropod dinosaur.
Participants in our summer field expedition, excavating a Jurassic sauropod dinosaur.

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If you are interested in joining the BBPI’s field teams, please contact Jason at [email protected].  Of course, you can always visit the website – BBPaleo.org – and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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