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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!

Jeff Person's blog

Two New Exhibits at North Dakota’s State Museum Showcase Ancient Predators of the Sky and Sea

I have a variety of responsibilities within my job, all of which I enjoy. One of those duties is the development of new exhibits or improvements of current exhibits across the state. The paleontology department has recently added two new aspects to current exhibits at the State Museum at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

During one of our fossil digs in the summer of 2017, a very large bird claw was collected. After some careful comparison to modern bird claws, we determined that this fossil claw was most likely from a bird closely related to the modern Golden Eagle. This fossil bird (Palaeoplancus) lived during the Oligocene Epoch, approximately 30 million years ago. It was a large bird, very similar in size to its modern Golden Eagle relative, and probably would have been one of the dominant predators of the time.

Bird fossils are rare and tell a unique aspect of the story of past life in the region. For this reason, it is important to share this rarely told story with the public via exhibits. The paleontology department purchased a cast of a modern eagle skeleton and hung it in an attack/diving position. It is hanging in a way so that it seems to be chasing one of its likely prey animals, the small horse Mesohippus. The fossil claw is also on exhibit as well as a cast of a modern Golden Eagle claw for comparison.

Palaeoplancus diving after its prey animal Mesohippus

View of the Oligocene bird Palaeoplancus diving after its prey animal Mesohippus.

The second addition to an exhibit is the incorporation of a new mural, cast, and exhibit case with specimens into the Underwater World in the Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time. After being collected in southwestern North Dakota and then stored at the Pioneer Trails Museum in Bowman, ND, for more than 20 years, a partial skeleton of a plesiosaur was brought to Bismarck in 2016. Plesiosaurs are a group of long necked marine reptiles (not dinosaurs) that were swimming in the Cretaceous seas when dinosaurs were roaming the Cretaceous lands. Plesiosaurs and mosasaurs lived at the same time and were both likely the dominant predators of their time, feeding on fish and likely anything else they could catch. Plesiosaurs are rare finds as fossils. Large predators tend to be relatively rare in the fauna they are a part of, and that rarity translates to the fossil record as well. The specimen we now have on exhibit is the most complete specimen ever found in North Dakota, and it is comprised of less than 10 percent of the entire skeleton.

Part of this exhibit consists of a new mural depicting part of the animal. Paleontologist Becky Barnes discussed painting this mural in her last blog post. Another part of the exhibit consists of 38 casted neck vertebrae and a skull of a plesiosaur, mounted in such a way to depict a seamless transition between the fleshed out mural and the skeleton mount. The last part of the exhibit is the actual fossil. We have on display a measly 15 vertebrae from the neck, which likely consisted of 70 neck vertebrae in the living animal. All of these pieces together will enhance the story of underwater life in North Dakota 80 million years ago.


The new plesiosaur addition to Underwater World at the State Museum in Bismarck. The mural and cast depicting the animal are above the fossil specimen in the exhibit case below.

Busting a Myth about Dinosaurs: Does Oil Come from Dinosaurs?

As a paleontologist, I have found that there are a few misconceptions about dinosaurs. Some of them have gone by the wayside when the research has been able to penetrate the media bombardment we face every day, while others have persisted for decades for a variety of reasons. One of these seemingly undying myths is the idea that oil comes from dinosaurs. This is an interesting idea that I believe stems from a pop culture phenomenon nearly 100 years old.

Most people have a basic understanding that oil comes from dead plants/animals/organic matter. However the misconception comes when thinking about which animals and plant remains helped create that oil. I believe a great deal of this misunderstanding comes from the Sinclair Oil symbol—a small, green, sauropod dinosaur named “Dino”. The reason for this symbol has nothing to do with where the oil is coming from, but rather has a more historical story.

Sinclair Oil mascot

Dino, the Sinclair Oil mascot trademarked in 1932, was practically ubiquitous across the United States after WWII.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, dinosaurs were big business. Museums across the eastern United States were scrambling to get the “best” skeleton and out-do other museums. They all wanted the biggest, most complete, fiercest, etc. This was the time of the infamous dinosaur wars. One of the prominent paleontologists at this time was Barnum Brown. He was the discoverer of Tyrannosaurus rex in 1902 (Osborn, 1905) and was a prolific fossil hunter. Some say he was the greatest dinosaur fossil collector ever. In the early 1900s, Brown had a relationship with the Sinclair Oil and Refining Corporation. He assisted in writing their promotional pamphlets and designing stamps in exchange for monetary support of his dinosaur collecting expeditions (Mitchell, 1998).

The Sinclair Dinosaur Book

Images of Sinclair’s promotional and educational booklets handed out in the 1930s (Spence, 1966).

“To give better academic stature to its promotions, Sinclair financed for several years the dinosaur fossil search expeditions of Dr. Barnum Brown, then curator of fossil reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History,” (Spence, 1966).

Barnum Brown by airplane

Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History, ready to depart on a bone hunting expedition in 1934 (Spence, 1966).

To capitalize on the popularity of dinosaurs, “Dino” was created as a marketing tool aimed at getting customers to believe that better oil came from older rocks. One of their marketing signs claimed it was “mellowed 80 million years” (Spence, 1966). The public equated Dino with power, endurance, and stamina (Spence, 1966). I’m sure those were qualities that Sinclair was happy to be branded with. Although the pamphlets and stamp books made reference to how oil was formed even before the dinosaurs existed, it seems the association of Dino and oil was too difficult to separate.

Graphic depicting how oil is formed

Graphic depicting how oil is formed (Chernicoff, 1995).

How oil actually forms:
When plants and animals living in the world’s oceans die, they sink to the ocean floor where their remains are eventually buried by sediment. Over time, as more of this organic matter is accumulated and buried deeper and deeper, it begins to change. Once certain pressures and temperatures are reached underground, the organic material changes into a substance called kerogen. As kerogen is buried even deeper, the increasing temperature and pressure transform it into hydrocarbons – the main constituents of crude oil and gas . The hydrocarbons will migrate through the pore spaces in rocks and accumulate in natural traps and pool together. It is these traps and pools that oil companies are searching for when they drill oil wells. It was this same process that occurred in North Dakota and formed the Bakken crude being drilled today (Nordeng, 2014).

Chernicoff, S., 1995, Geology, Worth Publishers, Inc., 593 pp.
Mitchell, W. J. T., 1998, The last dinosaur book, The University of Chicago Press, 321 pp.
Nordeng, S. H., 2014, Building the science for advancing oil and gas exploration and development in the Williston Basin: Geo News, v. 41, no. 1, p. 14-18.
Osborn, H. F., 1905, Tyrannosaurus and other Cretaceous carnivorous dinosaurs: American Museum of Natural History, Bulletin 21, p. 259-265.
Spence, H., 1966, A Great Name in Oil, Sinclair Through Fifty Years, F. W. Dodge Co. / McGraw Hill Inc., 104 pp.