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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Becky Barnes's blog

Mastodon Repair

Museum staff often have to walk a fine line when it comes to displays. Sometimes we get it right, and other times a little modification may be needed. If barriers are put up (such as Plexiglass, metal railings, etc.), some people feel offended or think that we’re trying to keep them away from the object on display. However, if we have no barriers, sometimes people get a little…too…up close with the artifact or specimen.

One of our first priorities is to keep the object on display safe. Without them, there is no museum! A gallery filled with photographs of fossils isn’t the same as seeing the real thing. Safe for the fossil? Yes. Good for museum patrons? Not so much. Another priority is to keep our museum visitors safe. For the most part in this state, we see a good dose of “North Dakota Nice,” which helps us keep our barriers to a minimum and objects close for viewing. There is the occasional mishap however.

Mastodon repair wrapped up with bandaid sticker on it

Plastic shrink-wrap and a touch of humor to hold the bones in place while the glue dries.

Someone trips over untied shoelaces, and bumps into a painting. Perhaps you wish to show everyone where you are, and during a selfie opportunity lean too far back, knocking into a display case. Or maybe an over-exuberant child who has escaped the watchful eye of parents runs into the leg of a Mastodon.

Becky Barnes lying down to paint the mastodon repair.

Not all repairs are conveniently placed! Becky touching up some spots of plaster with brown paint.

This last case did happen. No one was hurt, but the Mastodon legs did suffer some…dislocation. So what happened then? We fixed it. After making sure the bone was still in good condition, we looked for what went wrong with the display mount and how to counter the problem in the future. The radius (lower arm bone) was previously only glued into place. To repair it the bone was first cleaned, then we re-glued the bone and added some wire support. The wire was painted brown to match the bone and make it less distracting than shiny silver. To give the bone a little extra support while the glue was drying, we added a temporary layer of shrink-wrap.

Becky painting the mastodon repair

Becky concentrating on painting the newly installed silver wire.

The physical railing around the Mastodon is very low, so it doesn’t distract from the skeleton itself. There’s not a whole lot of modification that can be done on that aspect. So – can people touch it? Even though the physical opportunity is there, the museum staff sincerely hopes you will use photo opportunities, rather than tactile ones. Help keep our museum safe – safe for you and safe for the specimens and artifacts – and enjoy North Dakota’s history!

Year of the Plesiosaur


In the Chinese calendar, this is the Year of the Monkey. If Paleontology had a calendar, it would be the Year of the Plesiosaur! Northeastern North Dakota is well known for its underwater fauna. Mosasaurs (giant marine reptiles) swam alongside Archelon (giant sea turtles), Hesperornis (flightless birds), as well as plenty of fish and squid. Another type of marine reptile lived here that many people identify with the Loch Ness Monster (Nessie) – a plesiosaur.

Cartoon plesiosaur and scupture of Loch Ness Monster

Right: Sculpture of the Loch Ness Monster

Brief science lesson: plesiosaurs are a group of marine reptiles that contain a number of divisions. One group, the Pliosauroidea, had large heads and short necks. The other group, Plesiosauroidea, in general had small heads and long necks. Prior to their descriptions in 1824, they were grouped together with other marine reptiles, and sometimes even fish. Since then many shapes and sizes have been found – but few from North Dakota.

As of 2015, the State Fossil Collection had two elasmosaurid (reaaaallly long neck) vertebrae. One is on display in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time of the North Dakota Heritage Center, and the other is on display in Icelandic State Park. During the National Fossil Day event last October, a private citizen turned in another vertebra found south of Bismarck. In spring 2016, paleontologists Clint Boyd and Jeff Person made a road trip down to the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman. Behold – more! Not just one vertebra, but 15 articulated neck bones, plus bits of a partial skeleton! Then, icing on the cake – During our Pembina Gorge dig, a local brought in some bones to have them identified – yet another plesiosaur vertebra, this time from the body. The creatures were coming out of the woodwork from all across the state – it was amazing.

Plesiosaur vertebrae

Vertebrae from the articulated neck of a plesiosaur. Fifteen were collected; one neck had around 70 vertebrae.

The next steps will be to fully prepare the material found, and then identify who it belongs to. Saying “plesiosaur” is like saying “dog.” It’s a general term that gets a basic body shape in mind (notice the lower-case letter and non-italics). What we want to know are the specifics. Saying “Elasmosaurus” or “Styxosaurus” would be like saying German Shepherd and Scottish Terrier – a narrower description (also uppercase first letter and italics).

It is important to note – plesiosaurs are not dinosaurs. They are marine reptiles. For example, if we take a dog (land mammal), and a dolphin (water mammal) – both are mammals, both can coexist, but they are not closely related. It is the same with a plesiosaur (water reptile), and a dinosaur (land reptile).