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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!

Dinosaur Diseases, Injuries, and Pathologies

Some of the most fascinating features to observe in vertebrate fossils are pathologies. These are injuries or diseases the animal sustained over its life that left a legacy on the bones we collect. We like to think about these great, extinct beasts dominating the landscape — but what about the sick? The old? The injured? What happened to them? Living things in the past are just like living things today, each vulnerable to its own set of typical injuries. For the examples I provide below, I will be using Edmontosaurus, the duck-billed dinosaur (which also happens to be the same type of animal as Dakota the Dinomummy!).

Over the course of excavating these wondrous, giant “Cretaceous cows,” you would notice patterns in many of the bones. You would come across the standard bones and become more familiar with them, and thus would learn what they should look like as you gently scrape off the dirt . . . but the bones don’t always look the way they should. One of the most common bones to sustain injury is the tail — specifically what is called the spinous process. These long spikes sticking out of the centrum (main body) of the vertebrae are the same bumps you can feel on the back of your neck — just on the tail in this case. Interestingly, a lot of these tail injuries started healing before the animal died. Evidence of this healing includes breaks with a large callus (massive growth) of spongy bone around the breaks to stabilize fractures, or pockets and holes that were draining pus. The oldest animals even show evidence of arthritis on the ends of the spinous processes. Vertebrae also had a high chance of getting stepped on, perhaps while the animals slept in their large herds.

spinous process

This spinous process shows just a touch of what could be arthritis, but gives you a good idea of what one of these tail bones would look like.

broken spinous process

This broken spinous process is a mass of rough bone growth that had an active infection in it. The arrow is pointing to a lesion that was most likely an exit for pus.

two tail bones fused together

Damage happened during life to this tail, with the healed result being a fusion of two tail bones together.

trio of caudal (tail) vertebrae

This trio of caudal (tail) vertebrae (not from the same animal) all show breaks on the top-most portion of their spinous processes. The zoomed-in spine at right shows a different angle of the break, with the bone offset while healing.

caudal (tail) vertebrae with crushing damage

Series of caudal vertebrae with crushing damage. Vertebra C had nearly healed from a horizontal break that split the bone in two. Vertebra D was not as far along in the healing process. Vertebrae E and F split vertically in half and were riddled with infection. Pus-draining lesions can be seen scattered throughout the bone.

odd looking caudal (tail) vertebrae

This caudal vertebra is odd — it has lost the prezygopophyses [G] that connect the bone to the one in front of it, yet the area of bone has healed. The back end of the bone also shows damage, with another lesion.

spinous process

This spinous process is one of my personal favorites — just LOOK at that gnarly arthritis and infection! Crazy! AND a break on top of that.

The tail wasn’t the only bit of the animal to sustain injury. At the fossil site these came from, hand injuries were more common than foot injuries — at least you can run with a sore hand. But you become a Tyrannosaurus snack with a sore foot. Below are two hand bones that show damage. Both are set next to a normal, undamaged bone for comparison.

hand bone

This hand bone shows some possible arthritis in what would have been the pinky finger.

hand bone with pucker on one end

This hand bone shows an interesting pucker on one end, which slowed the growth of the bone. It is much shorter than it should have been.

Why Being a Custodian Is Like Being Batman

I used to think being a custodian was just a matter of mastering the skills typical of janitorial work, occasionally managing the unexpected, and having some ability to empathize with people. But it isn’t. Custodians must constantly grapple with the challenges that come with any job: ensuring we have the resources we need to do our jobs, managing time, and dealing with changing circumstances, incomplete information, organizational culture, and our own shortcomings.

Bob standing with a vacuum by the Mastodon

Custodian Bob Canter starting the evening shift at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

Business innovator Nilofer Merchant wrote, “Culture is a set of habits that allows a group to cooperate by assumption rather than by negotiation.” When visitors enter the awe-inspiring North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, they assume safety, and they assume cleanliness. It is the custodian’s mission to ensure— through diligence, awareness, initiative, and responsibility — that those expectations are met.

As you might imagine, Heritage Center custodians clean and maintain public spaces like the museum galleries, restrooms, and event spaces.  But we also clean and maintain the non-public areas in the lower level of the building: workshops, laboratories, offices, and special project rooms. So there is quite a variety of skills involved. On one shift, while cleaning the usual cubicles, restrooms, offices, and employee lounge, I may also oil a squeaky door hinge, or discover, report, and mitigate a leak in a mechanical room. On tomorrow’s shift I may replace the brush bearings on a floor scrubbing machine.

Our duties fall under three larger, overarching objectives: first, protect the safety of the visitors and employees; second, protect the building itself; and third, assure visitor and employee comfort, enjoyment, and satisfaction. Custodians, in our continuous process of constructing a clean and safe environment, are often invisible to our building’s users. We are behind the scenes; out of sight and out of mind. In short, my role is a little like Batman (if Batman also had the talents of his butler, Alfred): Protect people. Protect the building. Assure comfort.

Custodian mopping floors near building entrance

Custodian Josh Masser mopping the terrazzo floor of the Northern Lights Atrium and front entrance at the end of the day.

Examples of safety include sanitation of restrooms and “touch surfaces” like door handles, countertops, glass cases, and water fountains. Other safety watch-outs are slip hazards from leaks and spills. Gallery carpet tiles can loosen from their adhesive during exhibit changes and become a trip hazard. I can’t be there to swoop in like Batman and catch the child who trips on a loose carpet tile, but I can prevent the accident from happening in the first place.

Building protection involves watching for and reporting leaks and stains, a loosened door plate, a failing window seal. Are we custodians using appropriate products for buildings surfaces? Are we keeping three-year-old humans from climbing on the 13,000-year-old mastodon?

The National Association for Interpretation, a professional organization for museums and historical sites, says, “Cleanliness is a cardinal principle — people will remember dirty bathrooms more than anything else.” I agree that cleanliness is closely tied to enjoyment of a public space. I think it engenders a feeling of safety and comfort (even if subconsciously) among our visitors and employees. It sends a signal that here, in this place, someone cares.

Bob dusting around tin man and woman

Bob dusting the tin sculptures displayed near the James River Café.

Hospitality in ancient cultures involved welcoming the stranger and offering him food, shelter, and safety —the hospitality for which the Mandan villages were famous. My approach to custodial work is through a lens of goodwill.

Guest Blogger: Bob Canter

Bob sitting in front of Double Ditch Indian Village muralBob Canter is a late-shift custodian at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. He reminds us that the word custodian comes from the Latin “custos” for guarding, keeping safe, and taking care of.