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.

Digging for Fossils, Searching for Answers

How far would you go to get something you want or need? Would you make a special trip up a flight of stairs in your house to get new batteries for the remote? Or would you wait until you had to go up for another reason? How about two flights? What if I took away the stairs, and you had to walk up a hill? How far would you go then? Ten feet up? Twenty feet? Thirty feet? What if your prize at the top of the hill wasn’t something you could easily replace from a drawer in your home but instead was the key to a box? A box that contained the answer to a question you’ve asked yourself for more than a decade. Now for the final wrinkle. What if I told you that the key you’re searching for is likely at the top of that 30-foot high hill, but I can’t guarantee it’s there, or if it is there that you’ll even find it. Is your answer still the same as it was at the beginning?

I recently found myself in a situation very similar to this. In the hopes of answering a question that I’ve asked myself for 13 years, I had to collect a lot of rock from a very tall butte in North Dakota. So a small group of us went to a site in the southwest corner of the state. We had to collect a lot of rock because the fossil animals we were looking for are very small, rare, and hard to find. As a result of the small size and scarcity, the bigger the sample size we collected, the more likely we will find what we’re looking for. After all the work was done, we had collected more than 800 pounds of rock from the top of that butte. The rock then had to be carried by hand in buckets down the butte and across the prairie. There is a high probability that the reward will be worth the effort. Maybe I will finally answer that question that has been burning in my mind for more than a decade. If not, I’ll try again and again until I’ve answered my question.

A women wearing a dark colored sweatshirt, pants, and hat hikes up a very brown hill with brown fields shown in the distance behind her

Our quest involved hauling roughly 800 pounds of rock from the collection site to a waiting truck.

This is the quandary faced by scientists all over the world. But in my opinion, not knowing what you’ll find or when you’ll find it just makes the endeavor more exciting. At times, the work paleontologists do can be hot, dirty, and tiring. Nevertheless, for me, the discovery part of science is both fun and rewarding — answering the questions that no one has answered (or even thought to ask) and finding something new that no one has discovered. That is what keeps me coming back for more, and I bet a lot of you feel the same way.

Many green buckets with white lids sit stacked on a pallet.

Could the answer to my burning question lie inside one of these buckets?

If you want to join me on the quest for answers, come along on one of our public fossil digs. We hold them every summer. Please keep in mind that while not every dig we offer requires a lot of physical strength, all of them require patience. The fossils we work with are fragile and need a certain amount of care to remove them intact, but you will learn how! Follow us on social media to find out when registration will start. We are on all the major platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), just search for @NDGSpaleo. I hope to see you next summer!

Cleaning Exhibits

What are some ways to make the best of a bad situation? How do we use the closing of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum to the advantage of everyone: the public; staff; and exhibit specimens and artifacts? We clean, of course! Not just everyday cleaning that happens whether the museum is open or closed, but “deep” cleaning that requires portions of the building to be closed off. Think of it as spring cleaning the dinosaurs!

The Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time was opened to the public in November of 2014. Since that time, thousands of visitors from around the globe have enjoyed and learned about these prehistoric beasts that once roamed the place we now call North Dakota. In March of 2020, the Heritage Center was closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was decided that staff should take advantage of this situation and do something we wouldn’t normally be able to do, or at least not do as easily. Large-scale cleaning of the exhibits is not a quick or easy task–not without disrupting the experience for visitors to a museum.

Deep cleaning can involve large equipment, loud noises, and lots of dirt and dust. Nevertheless, exhibits do need to get deep cleaned periodically, and after five years it was time to break out something a bit more powerful than the feather dusters.

Woman cleaning exhibits with a feather duster

Paleontologist Becky Barnes cleaning the Highgate Mastodon with a feather duster.

We gathered together all the equipment we thought we might need in the Geologic Time Gallery and got to work. With the help of a multi-speed leaf blower, an electric lift, and a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter vacuum, we were able to remove accumulated dust from very hard to reach places.

Man inside assembled dinosaur skeleton dusting with a handheld air blower

Man cleaning dinosaur skeleton with an air blower

Cleaning skeleton with air blower

left: cleaning the TRex. right: cleaning the Pteranodon

Getting into hard-to-reach places inside the Geologic Time Gallery exhibits to dust the skeletons. A multi-speed leaf blower on the lowest setting was used to remove most of the accumulated dust. HEPA vacuums were then used to suck up the material that rained down onto the exhibit bases and carpet of the gallery.

The amount of dust we removed was surprising, and everyone involved was happy the removed dust bunnies were not “raining” down on visitors.

All of the creatures on exhibit were treated to a dusting, with the taller and harder to reach areas benefiting more than the lower ones. From the large T. rex to the small, tree-climbing Plesiadapis, everything in the Geologic Time Gallery is now clean and ready for another five years of silently watching the parade of visitors stroll by below.

From the tip of the Pteranodon’s nose
To the end of the T. rex’s toes,
No one knows
How the dust bunny grows.

Moving Dakota, the Two-Ton Mummified Hadrosaur

On a snowy day in February 2008, the mummified hadrosaur Dakota arrived at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck without fanfare. It arrived in two large blocks and a few smaller packages. It had been trucked all the way from the NASA lab in southern California, where it had been CAT scanned.

We had to rent the largest forklift we could find in Bismarck to move the largest block (the body block) from the truck into the building. Despite this block weighing in excess of two tons, it was moved safely and without incident.

forlift moving dakota on a crate pallet in snowy landscape

Dakota being moved into the ND Heritage Center in 2008. The largest forklift we could rent in Bismarck had to be used to move the largest block of Dakota, the body block.

Dakota was then ushered down a long hallway into the paleontology lab, where paleontologists and specialists spent years removing hundreds of pounds of rock from the block encasing the never-before-seen dinosaur skin. A few years later, as work on the ND Heritage Center expansion began, Dakota was moved to a temporary home to keep it out of harm’s way. It retraced its path back down the same hallway it had travelled just a few years prior to a secondary lab next to the loading dock, where it had originally entered the building.

Over the next year, even more rock was removed from the large body block while we waited for the time to be right to move Dakota once again. That time came during summer 2013. Dakota travelled from its temporary home in the secondary paleo lab, once again down the same hallway.

six people moving dinomummy

Moving Dakota in 2013. This trip would take the block upstairs and into the hallway for exhibit.

This time, it was only to the freight elevator, a few short feet from where it once sat for nearly five years while specialists chipped away at rock, exposing fossilized skin. After a quick trip up the elevator, it was slowly moved toward its home in the Corridor of History outside the State Museum’s Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time.

six people moving dinomummy into place in gallery

Getting the final placement of Dakota for exhibit correct. This was done during the final touches on the ND Heritage Center expansion.

Uncovered dinomummy on display behind glass case

View of Dakota on exhibit from 2013 to 2019.

For the next six years Dakota sat on exhibit where tens of thousands of visitors a year gazed upon its exposed dinosaur skin, 66 million years in the making.

Our goal is to help the public best understand how important and rare Dakota is. Because of the skin preservation, Dakota has taught and is teaching us a great deal about dinosaurs we didn’t previously know. In order to better educate the public, we needed to revamp the Dakota exhibit. That means the larger body block needed to move . . . again. Many changes are happening to the Dakota exhibit, the largest of which has been the removal of the body block from display.

forklift moving dinomummy

Hauling Dakota down the ND Heritage Center & State Museum hallway toward the freight elevator. Wheels were permanently attached to Dakota to make it possible to haul with the forklift.

In late October 2019, the large body block was removed from exhibit and carefully wheeled down to the North Dakota State Fossil Collection room in the ND Heritage Center & State Museum lower level.

team pushing dinomummy

Dakota coming out of the freight elevator, on its way toward the paleontology lab and collections.

Team moving dinomummy down a long hallway

The last leg of Dakota’s journey was down this long hallway and into the paleontology lab.

The tail block, arm, and foot pieces will be moved back upstairs into a newly revamped exhibit that will be unveiled in the coming months.

Please come and visit us in spring 2020 and see all the changes to the Dakota exhibit.

Paleontology Outreach in the 21st Century

One of our key missions in the North Dakota Geological Survey paleontology department is to educate the public about the paleontology of North Dakota. Traditionally this has been done through a number of tried-and-tested methods such as exhibits, tours, and public lectures. However, due to the physical nature of these methods, the people on the receiving end of this outreach are primarily local. While it is very important to interest our fellow North Dakotans, we must reach a larger audience if we want to have a broader impact. Within the last two decades we have added the public fossil dig program as an important, hands-on means of reaching both North Dakota residents and nonresidents, and informing participants of the importance of North Dakota fossils. This program has proven successful, and we are reaching a large audience that includes both local participants and some from as far away as Italy! The public fossil dig program continues to grow and interest people from all over, but it can be hampered by the cost of travel to North Dakota for nonresidents. This is just the nature of the public fossil digs—in order to enjoy the excitement of physically helping us uncover our rich fossil history, you must travel to North Dakota.

Four people digging for fossils

Man in a red shirt sits next by exposed fossil and is digging to reveal more

Public Dig photos from various sites we visited in 2018. Come out and join us! A few spots still remain for 2019, visit for more information.

Local news stories are a great way to reach a larger audience without the burden of travel costs on the viewer. However, unless you are watching your television the moment the news story airs and you happen to live within the broadcast range of the news outlet, you might miss it. We have been featured on national television programs such as Dino Autopsy, NASA 360, Prehistoric Predators, and NBC’s Today Show, which is wonderful; but again, if you aren’t tuned in the moment it airs, you might miss it.

The advent of social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and streaming (Facebook Live, Skype, and Twitch) has dramatically increased our opportunities for public outreach. Instead of blasting out information to a general audience, we can distribute our message with surgical precision to those who are really interested, and who will likely share it with other like-minded individuals.

We have started a video channel on Twitch where we post videos on a variety of topics of interest to aspiring paleontologists, young and old. From molding and casting fossils to just chatting about an upcoming exhibit while asking for feedback from viewers, this is a new platform to engage not only a local audience, but potentially a global one. A true benefit of posting videos in this way is they can easily be found and viewed by anyone at any time.

Video thumbnails from Twitch channel

The North Dakota Geological Survey Twitch page showing various videos available for viewing by anyone.

Lastly, we have started using the platform Skype as a way of conducting virtual tours of the vertebrate paleontology exhibits, labs, and collection areas. It also gives members of the public the opportunity to chat with paleontologists. Offering tours and video chats in this way completely eliminates the burden of travel on either party and allows us to reach a much larger audience. Although nothing beats seeing fossil preparation firsthand, watching a video on Twitch may serve to inspire a young person, student, or someone looking to fulfill a bucket list item to visit our great state and discover the fabulous fossils of North Dakota.

Photographing Small Teeth

I research small fossil teeth; VERY small fossil teeth. At times these fossil teeth can be submillimeter in size. While a benefit of this is that they do not take up much storage space, one downside is that they can be somewhat difficult to see and study. As I discussed in a previous blog post sometimes it is difficult to even find them in the first place. An obvious solution to the problem of studying these tiny teeth is the microscope. However, there are still problems with viewing teeth of this micro size. Often when looking at these teeth through the microscope, not all of the tooth will be in focus at once due to the narrow focal point. This makes studying these small teeth difficult, as a researcher can only view a small portion of the tooth’s surface at a time. Thankfully, there is a solution to this problem.

By taking a series of photos at different “elevations” along the surface of the tooth, it is possible to create an in-focus image. This is accomplished with a computer program that seamlessly blends or “stacks” these photos together. What you wind up with is an in-focus image that is the result of combining all the focused points of each photo together. In general, the more images you take of the tooth and stack together, the better your final photo. For demonstration purposes please see figures 1-4.

lowest in-focus slice of tooth

Figure 1: Level “A” is the lowest in-focus slice. Note that only the metal pin (lower left) and the bubbled glue and pin head (upper right) are in focus.

middle in-focus slice of tooth

Figure 2: Level “B” is the middle in-focus slice. Note that only the in color sections of the tooth are in focus.

top in-focus slice of tooth

Figure 3: Level “C” is the top in-focus slice. Note that only the in color sections of the tooth are in focus.

final stacked image of the tooth

Figure 4: This is the final “stacked” image and is the result of putting all the other images together. Essentially, A + B + C = D. Note that now the entire tooth is in focus.

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.