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TJ Jerke, Forum Communications, Published July 07 2012

Visitors join North Dakota dinosaur dig

WALHALLA, N.D. – As Devin Berger meticulously sifted through the dirt on a hillside ridge Saturday, the 15-year-old from Grand Forks saw something that looked a little bit different.

The rock-like object in his hand, he soon found out, was once a vertebra of a small salt-water fish that swam here eons ago when a great inland sea filled much of what is now the Great Plains.

“Being the first person to see something like this in 80 million years is pretty sweet,” said Berger, who aspires to become a paleontologist.

His find was one of many made by a group of amateur paleontologists joining the weeklong dig in the Pembina Gorge that started Saturday. The event is sponsored by the North DakotaGeological Survey, the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department and Walhalla Economic Development.

John Hoganson, a professional paleontologist with NDGS, said the goal is to find rare fossils and educate North Dakotans and visitors about the study of prehistoric life.

“Young people nowadays are interested in what life was like back then,” he said. “So the more we can provide that information then we can help them appreciate it.”

NDGS also holds public digs in three other locations every year. Two are in the Badlands near Medora and one in Marmarth in the state’s southwest corner.

Ancient disaster

Saturday’s dig began with a science lesson and briefings on safety and the tools to be used. Then, the eager diggers were let loose to see what they could find.

They focused on an orange layer of sediment where many fossils were previously discovered.

“Since the fossils are found in one layer, some think a catastrophic event may have killed them all at the same time,” Hoganson said.

The sediment is composed of a mineral called Bentonite that had once been volcanic ash blown from the Rocky Mountains, he said. Some paleontologists theorize that the ash polluted the water and killed many of the creatures that lived in the inland sea, he said.

The group uses shovels to move large chunks of dirt, but when they get close to where they expected fossils, they use trowels, awls and brushes to carefully remove sediment, ensuring nothing would be broken or lost, according to Hoganson.

“I would do it every day, even if you only find a little bit,” Shelly Fillipi said. “When you do find something, everything goes off like winning a jackpot, with all the bells and whistles.”

The Fillipi family from Denver – Shelly, her husband Steve and their children Austin, 14, and Sydney, 12 – spent the morning in the dirt.

Berger’s mother, Brandy Chaffee of Grand Forks, said the excitement built up the longer she was digging.

And after Berger’s discovery, it exploded.

“It’s like a treasure hunt you can actually accomplish,” Chaffee said.

The dig was part of a weekend of events she had planned to celebrate Berger’s birthday; he turns 16 on Thursday.

A big find

Hoganson began taking groups of amateur paleontologists into the Pembina Gorge in 2001. There, he has found shark teeth, fish skeletons, the remains of a giant squid and the bones of a 24-foot-long mosasaur, a marine reptile believed to be related to today’s monitor lizards.

Early Saturday afternoon, the group discovered another mosasaur vertebra. The diggers began focusing on the area where it was found and discovered more pieces of the mosasaur’s backbone.

“Not many people get to say they found a dinosaur,” Berger said.

Because the land where the dig occurred is owned by the state, all fossils collected here are taken to the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck, where they are prepared and stored for display.

The group’s discoveries will likely be showcased sometime in the future. There are more than 20 locations statewide where fossils and artifacts are put on display.

Shelly Fillipi said it would be worth coming back from Denver to do more digging. “I think it’s something everyone should do,” she said. “It makes you sound like you have a pretty fun life.”

Chaffee agreed. “It offers a lot of history and I love the thought of being part of something that is very unique,” she said.

If you go

To join a dig: The Pembina Gorge dig will continue until Saturday. About 100 have signed up, but there are several openings still available.

Participants must be 15 or older. The cost is $90 per person and includes breakfast, lunch, a snack and a souvenir. To register, go to www.WalhallaND.org.

TJ Jerke writes for the Grand Forks Herald