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Near Jordan, the public can dig for dinosaurs

Near Jordan, the public can dig for dinosaurs

Stories By DONNA HEALY Photos By LARRY MAYER Of The Gazette Staff

Across a moonscape of mud rock and eroded pillars of sandstone hoodoos, Chris Morrow leads the Taiwanese children on a trek through time.

Morrow, a 28-year-old with a deep tan and dusty leather hat, shows the children and their parents the sponge-like pattern of fossilized dinosaur bones.

On a ranch northwest of Jordan, they move through the pockmarked badlands of the Hell Creek Formation, one of the most productive dinosaur hunting areas in the world.

As part of a nonprofit organization, Paleo-World Research Foundation, Morrow brings the public, including families and tour groups of amateurs, to Jordan to dig for dinosaurs and learn about paleontology. Under an agreement with the local landowner, significant finds will stay in Garfield County.

"Below me here is lake deposit," Morrow said, pointing to the popcorn-like, gray mud stone.

"Right above me is sandstone," he said, pointing to a small knob of sandstone capping the hoodoo. The sandstone marks the channel deposits of an ancient stream bed.

"I followed the stream and found an articulated duckbill dinosaur," Morrow tells the tour group.

Nearby is the site of a dromaeosaur, a vicious meat-eater. Farther up a hillside lie the exposed skull and rib cage of a triceratops. Nine out of 10 bones at the site are from triceratops, which grazed across terrain that was swampland 65 million years ago.

Judging by teeth marks, the triceratops fell prey to a dromaeosaur.

"This one was really scavenged. Every rib has bite marks on it," Morrow said.

Anticipation peaks as Morrow ends his "show and tell." The nine Taiwanese children, ranging in age from 6 to 12, belong to a year-long DinoDragon project run through a museum in Taiwan. The group spent three days in Jordan.

When Morrow sends them off to comb a nearby area for fossils, they ping-pong across the area, keeping their eyes scanning the ground for the characteristic orange-red color of iron deposits in the area's fossils. When they find tiny bones, they scramble to show their friends.

Although Morrow cannot understand Chinese, he can hear the excitement in their voices.

"Here they don't stand and watch us. They get in the quarry and do the work," he said.

"The next time they go to a museum, they're going to see dinosaurs in a whole new light. Paleo-World gives the public a chance to get out and make a discovery."

The Taiwanese group leader, Timothy Huang, moves under the shade of a bright blue umbrella hat as he translates Morrow's words into a portable microphone headset. Within an hour, Huang has found a duckbill dinosaur fossil imbedded in the sandstone cap of a small mushroom-shaped hoodoo. The rock contains an impression of dinosaur skin.

Spurred by the find, Huang unearths more duckbill bones nearby. In excited tones, he invites a pair of boys to see what he has found, then shoos them away when they scramble too close to his find.

Research on dinosaurs is typically done under the auspices of a university or museum. To find funding, Morrow has gone outside the establishment.

Paleo-World was set up two years ago - first as a company and then as a research foundation - to finance his work. He is a paleontologist by passion and through 10 years of field experience. His degrees are in biology and business.

Morrow came to Montana in 1992 on an expedition led by a professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. After that summer, he began working as a preparator in the university's paleontology department and continued to go on summer digs. The field work led him to publish research on his finds.

In April of 2001, Morrow moved to Jordan and volunteered as curator of paleontology at the Garfield County Museum. Now, instead of doing field work just during the short summer season, his season extends as long as no snow covers the ground.

Last year, Paleo-World attracted six paying visitors. This year, more than 100 paying visitors came to Jordan. The economic ripple is beginning to be felt in the community: at the motel, where the tour-guests stay; at the restaurant where they eat breakfast; at the gas station where they fill their tanks.

"This is economic development," said Judy Lervick, who has sold real estate in the area for 30 years.

Lervick works for Paleo-World, handling the logistics of accommodating tour groups.

Families have come from almost every state in the United States. Early this summer, a British boy came through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which helps children with life-threatening illnesses.

Leaders of the Taiwanese DinoDragon program have talked about forging closer ties to Paleo-World and about the possibility of setting up an exchange program with mainland China.

Morrow also has involved Jordan residents in his work. Youngsters stop to play on a plaster sculpture of a triceratops that he helped build in front of the Fellman's Motel.

Each Tuesday, he leads a community preparation night at the Garfield County Museum. A core group of about 10 locals uses toothbrushes and peroxide to prepare fossils. Morrow is also teaching them casting and molding techniques.

"It's more like a social hour, too," Morrow said.

Area ranchers occasionally bring in specimens for him to identify.

Paleontologists first started digging on John and Cathy McKeever's family's ranch land 40 years ago and have kept coming out just about every summer since then. The car-size replica of a triceratops housed in the Garfield County Museum was unearthed on their property.

"If they're not picked up and something's done with them, they kind of disintegrate and go away if they're exposed to the weather," John McKeever said.

McKeever, whose grandparents homesteaded in the area in 1918, would like to see significant and unique finds stay in Garfield County.

"I think Garfield County should have the best museum in the country because it's where the majority of the finds come from," he said.

"Not everything is going to stay here. You don't have the room. And there's no point in having a dozen triceratops. But, if we get something unique, I think it should stay here, either the original or a real good replica."

Paleo-World Research Foundation professes the same goal.

"Fossils have been coming out of here for 100 years, but where is the museum in Eastern Montana?" Morrow asked.

He would like to see a new museum, affiliated with the existing Garfield County Museum, but big enough to contain a dinosaur hall, education area and a workspace for preparing fossils.

Last week, Paleo-World took the first step toward creating the museum, negotiating an agreement to buy an existing building in Jordan.

Donna Healy may be reached at 657-1292 or


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