Montana has been working the charismatic megafauna thing for millions of years.
Long before grizzly bears prowled for elk calves along the Rocky Mountain Front, Deinoychus packs chased maiasaurs away from their nests to snack on newly hatched babies. If dozens of Tyrannosaurus rex fossils hadn’t been found in the sedimentary Montana soils, we’d know they were here from all the teeth gashes in the bones of Triceratops they ate.
Finding dinosaur fossils was a regular part of wandering the tumbled foothills along Highway 89, not that anyone much cared. That started changing in 1978 when Marion Brandvold found some particularly tiny bones that turned out to be most the charismatic of all. Her cache of specimens caught the attention of Museum of the Rockies paleontologists Jack Horner and Bob Makela, who concluded they were baby remains of a new species of duck-billed dinosaur.
The significance of Brandvold’s discovery needs some excavation, just like the little fossils. They weren’t simply infantile versions of another thunder-lizard. They opened a window in a time machine that showed dinosaurs had families. They built nests for their babies and nurtured them for extended periods. Egg Mountain avalanched the notion that dinosaurs’ walnut-sized brains weren’t capable of much beyond eating. Horner and Makela named Brandvold’s find Maiasaura Peeblesorum: the Good Mother Reptile.
Maiasaura also re-juiced the old competitive spirit among dinosaur hunters. Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument introduced the world to fossil excavation in the mid-1800s. Montana produced the world’s first Tyrannosaurus in 1903. Similar giant skeletons served as circus sideshow attractions as much as scientific investigations around the turn of the 20th century. Big-city museums deployed quick-response teams to claim new dig sites and bring back the latest mystery beast for the clamoring public.
“We were the first county museum in Montana, and the first to display fossils in 1936,” Carter County Museum Director Sabre Moore said of her Ekalaka institution. “Unfortunately, a lot of our fossils leave the state. We’ve been lucky to get some casts gifted back as kind of a thank-you.”
That includes a cast of Wyrex, the Tyrannosaur discovered by local resident Don Wyrick in Fallon County with the unusual distinction of having its tail bitten off by some more aggressive competitor. The original bones are in a Houston lab, but Ekalaka’s showroom will highlight the cast this summer.
For the most part, the early science was limited to getting the bones put together right. Egg Mountain triggered a space-age leap of insight about dinosaur life that could make careers and fortunes. Horner’s lectures on Cretaceous parental habits started filling auditoriums. Fossil-obsessed middle-schoolers soon competed with Hollywood agents for his attention. The result was “Jurassic Park.” Groan if you will, but it spawned four sequels.
It also spawned a few lawsuits, as finders and keepers tussled over who got to possess the best fossils. Brandvold’s eggs and babies wound up split three ways, among the collections at Yale, Princeton and the Museum of the Rockies. The Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum has its own supply.
“There was a lot of drama involved,” Two Medicine museum director Cory Coverdell said. “Horner discovered the eggs in the rock shop next door. At the time, the only dinosaur on display in Montana was in Ekalaka.”
Fourteen public dinosaur displays now dot a loop more than 2,000 miles long across the central and eastern thirds of the state. They range from the animatronic galleries at Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies to one of the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimens at the Fort Peck Interpretative Center, 385 miles to the northeast. It take nine hours to drive between Bynum and Ekalaka.
Montana’s geography and geology combined to preserve some of the world’s best Cretaceous and Jurassic life evidence. The landscape east of the present-day Rocky Mountains bathed in the edge of the Cretaceous Interior Seaway, whose shoreline shifted from around Choteau to as far east as the North Dakota border.
“It was a time when the global sea level was very high, and we had extreme global warmth,” University of Montana sedimentary geologist Marc Hendrix explained. “There were no polar ice caps to speak of. All that ice that’s today tied up in Greenland and Antarctica was melted.”
The overthrust of the Rocky Mountains caused the older layer of the seabed to flex down to the west, as if the Bob Marshall Wilderness was a diver bending the end of a diving board. Eons of plant and animal species lived and died in that shallow sea, drifting to the bottom in ever-increasing layers. Some deposited in ways that transformed them into today’s pockets of petroleum, natural gas and coal after millions of years. Others did their work much faster, encasing and mineralizing everything from seashells to skin tissue in natural archives.
Leonardo, a Brachylophasaurus considered by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s best-preserved dinosaur,” was unearthed near Malta’s Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station. That designation could fall after a new discovery published this spring of an ankylosaur with mummified skin tissue along with its bony spikes, horns and hammer-like tail. The creature has such a dominating appearance, the finders named it Zuul crurivastator — for the demon in the first “Ghostbusters” movie and the Latin word for “crusher of shins.”
Locals have been aware of Montana’s superb preservation qualities for longer than the major academic world might acknowledge. Laurie Trexler, Brandvold’s daughter-in-law, recalled working for weeks on a Maiasaur head section where imprints of skin showed the dinosaur had a dewlap, or flap of skin under its jaw. But when the specimen was transferred to an Ivy League university for further examination, the lab staff punched through the skin traces in their haste to “clean” the bone pieces.
Unlike most museum experiences, Montana’s dinosaurs offer a hands-on component comparable to hanging out in Thomas Edison’s lab while he’s inventing the light bulb or Michelangelo’s workshop while he’s carving “David.” Visitors with an afternoon or a week can go out in the field with professional paleontologists and dig up a new dinosaur.
Bynum’s Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, Malta’s Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station and Jordan’s Garfield County Museum all offer field trips to fossil deposits for actual excavation and recovery. Federal law prohibits private fossil collecting at these sites, but visitors can experience the full spectrum of discovery, recovery and analysis central to paleontology.
“About half our visitors are making a convenient stop between Glacier and Yellowstone (national parks),” Coverdell said in Bynum. “But the other half comes here just for the dinosaurs. Montana has a formation running from Wolf Creek to Canada that’s 40 miles wide — it’s a great place to look for dinosaurs. We did 412 field programs last year.”
Glendive’s Frontier Gateway Museum provides an indoor complement to the outdoor dinosaur wonders of the Hell Creek Formation. Both Makoshika State Park and the privately operated Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs make it possible to find fossils with professional supervision and guidance.
Carter County’s annual “Dino Shindig” on the last weekend of July last year won the Montana Office of Tourism’s Event of the Year award for its efforts. The three-day gathering this July 28-30 features 16 professional paleontologists making presentations and a pitchfork fondue to feed the hungry participants.
Those seeing a similar hands-on opportunity without the sunburn should consult the programs offered at Fort Peck’s Interpretative Center and Museum and Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies — the most comprehensive collection of dinosaur science in the state.
In 2016, 333,151 people made at least part of the Dinosaur Trail. That’s up 15 percent over the year before, and the best record since the route was laid out in 2005.
“I’m just amazed these little kids come in here and they can pronounce all the names way better than I can,” said Old Trail Museum Director Julie Ameline in Choteau. “They really know their stuff.”
Where to find Montana’s Dinosaur Trail
Blaine County Museum
The Paleontology Department displays a dozen Judith River Formation exhibits including hadrosaur, Gorgosaurus and Ankylosaurus fossils from the area. Remains of gigantic marine reptiles mosasaur and plesiosaur are featured, along with invertebrates from the area’s ancient ocean (75-500 million years ago). In the Look, Touch, and Wonder room guests can handle fossils of sea creatures, plants, and dinosaurs that roamed this area millions of years ago. Free admission. Open all year. Hours of operation available at blainecountymuseum.com, 406-357-2590. Located four blocks off U.S. Hwy. 2, 501 Indiana Street.
Carter County Museum
This is Montana’s first county museum and the first to display dinosaurs found in the state. Its exhibits include a mounted skeleton of Anatotitan copei (one of a few nearly complete skeletons of this species found), a complete skull of Triceratops, and a full cast of Wyrex (the T. rex. found in Carter County), pachycephalosaurs, mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, ankylosaurs, the first and most complete juvenile T. rex, and the only known pterosaur from the Hell Creek Formation. Mounts and casts of all of these are on display along with other real dinosaur bones. Free admission. Open all year. Hours of operation available at cartercountymuseum.org, 406-775-6886. Located at 306 N. Main.
The Rudyard area has provided dinosaur specimens for the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) and other premier institutions for years. Now an MOR affiliate, the Depot Museum’s signature display is the “Oldest Sorehead,” a fully articulated Gryposaurus found near here. The facility’s lifelike duckbill dinosaur and egg nest display places you right next to these ancient creatures, plus other permanent and changing dinosaur exhibits. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day and winter by appointment. Hours of operation available at rudyardmuseum.com, 406-355-4322 or 406-355-4356. Located off U.S. Highway 2, Fourth Avenue Northwest.
Fort Peck Interpretive Center and Museum
The Center’s signature attraction is “Peck’s Rex,” one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever found. The lobby features a life-size replica of Peck’s Rex, and the exhibit hall displays a full-size skeleton cast. A Cretaceous Sea display and several other dinosaur exhibits are also highlighted. Free admission. Open daily May-September. Seasonal hours October-April. Hours of operation available at fws.gov/refuge/Charles_M_Russell/visit/visitor_activities/FPIC.html, 406-526-3493. Located 1.5 miles east of Fort Peck townsite, Lower Yellowstone Road.
Garfield County Museum
The museum features Cretaceous fossils from the Hell Creek Formation. The first T. rex ever discovered was found near Jordan in 1902. Exhibits include a full T. rex skull, full-size Triceratops replica, and a pachycephalosaur domed skull. Free admission. Open June 1-August 31. Hours of operation available online at garfieldcounty.com/our-museum.html. Located on U.S. Highway 200 East.
Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station
Located in the heart of “dinosaur country,” the museum features many extraordinary fossils: fish, invertebrates, turtles, plants, crocodile and a variety of Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaur species, such as Camarasaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, pachycephalosaurs, tyrannosaurs, a new species of horned dinosaur and raptor, and superbly preserved juvenile and adult specimens of Brachylophosaurus. Summer field dig programs are offered for adults and children. Collections room, fossil preparation lab, and gift store. Seasonal hours of operation, admission fee available at greatplainsdinosaurs.org, 406-654-5300 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Located on Highway 2 East next to the Phillips County Museum.
H. Earl Clack Memorial Museum
The museum displays 75-million-year-old dinosaur eggs and embryos found in local exposures of the Judith River Formation. Research suggests these are Lambeosaurus eggs (a “duck bill” dinosaur) laid along the banks of an ancient river and estuary of the Cretaceous Bearpaw Sea that once covered this area. “Stygi,” a skull cast of the rare Stygimoloch (a species of pachycephalosaur) and an Albertosaurus head mask are also displayed. The famed archeological treasure — the Wahkpa Chu’gn Buffalo Jump Site — is adjacent to the museum. Free admission. Seasonal hours of operation available at hearlclackmuseum.org, 406-265-4000. Located on U.S. Highway 2 West in the Holiday Village Mall.
Frontier Gateway Museum
An official county museum located in the heart of the Hell Creek Formation rich with Cretaceous fossil remains. Full-size replicas of Stegoceras found in the Glendive area are on display along with fossils from Triceratops, hadrosaurs, Thescelosaurus, aquatic, and plant fossils. Open Daily Memorial Day-Labor Day. Guided tour available upon request. Free admission. Hours of operation available at frontiergatewaymuseum.org, 406-377-8168 or email@example.com. Located at 201 State Street (take exit 215 off I-94, then Belle Prairie Frontage Road).
Makoshika State Park
Makoshika (meaning “bad land” in Lakota) is part of the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation. Significant finds include a complete Triceratops horridus skull (on display at the Park’s Visitor Center), fossil remains of Edmontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex and a nearly complete skeleton of the rare thescelosaur. Open year-round; camping sites available. Hours of operation and park fee information available at stateparks.mt.gov/makoshika/, 406-377-6256. Located 1.4 miles southeast of downtown on Snyder Avenue, follow State Park/Dinosaur Track signs.
Museum of the Rockies
Museum of the Rockies is a Smithsonian Affiliate and recognized as one of the world’s finest research and history museums. MOR houses the most T. rex specimens anywhere in the world. Notable exhibits include the growth and behavior series of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, the Montana’s T. rex skeleton, the Catherine B. rex specimen, and many other one-of-a-kind dinosaur finds. MOR also delights visitors with changing exhibits from around the world, permanent indoor and outdoor regional history exhibits, planetarium shows, and a museum store. Open all year, hours of operation and admission fee available at museumoftherockies.org, 406-994-2551. Located at 600 W. Kagy Blvd.
Old Trail Museum
The Dinosaur Antechamber showcases discoveries from the Two Medicine Formation: Maiasaura and Einosaurus skulls, nestling, hatchling and adult Maiasaura skeletons and bones, and a Sauronitholestes skeleton casting. A prep lab display and geologic information about the Rocky Mountain Front and Willow Creek Anticline provide additional information about the area and its rich paleontology heritage. Seasonal hours of operation, admission fee available at oldtrailmuseum.org, firstname.lastname@example.org, 406-466-5332. Located on U.S. Highway 89, 823 N. Main St.
Phillips County Museum
Fossil discoveries from the nearby Judith River Formation are featured inside the museum. Meet “Elvis,” the 33-foot long Brachylophosaurus fossil, one of the best articulated skeletons ever found. A dynamically posed 28-foot Albertosaurus stands tall greeting visitors. Other significant items are a 700-pound Apatosaurus femur visitors can pose with and a Skull Game for children. In the underwater sea area a fantastic 4-by-4-foot Crinoid plate is displayed — is it plant or animal? Seasons, hours of operation and admission fees are available at phillipscountymuseum.org, email@example.com, or 406-654-1037. Located at 431 U.S. Highway 2 East next to the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum.
Two Medicine Dinosaur Center
Education through Research is the museum's motto. In addition to the museum, which features local discoveries like the first baby dinosaurs found in North America, it also offers public, hands-on dinosaur dig programs throughout the summer. These programs run from a half-day site tour all the way to a two-week long Paleo Training Course. Advanced registration required. Season and hours of operation available at tmdinosaurcenter.org, firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-800-238-6873. Downtown Bynum, U.S. Highway 89, look for the dinosaurs.
Upper Musselshell Museum
The museum’s centerpiece is “Ava,” the full-size skeleton replica of a “first of its kind” Avaceratops, found in the Judith River Formation outside nearby Shawmut. The museum also has a hadrosaur tibia and fibula, numerous dinosaur leg bone and hip bone fossils, and fossilized ancient sea creatures. Open Memorial Day-Labor Day. Hours of operation available at harlowtonmuseum.org, email@example.com, 406-632-5519. Two locations downtown: 11 and 36 South Central Ave.