Dinosaur diggers bring mobile lab, new techniques to Eastern Montana

Jun 06, 2008

Scientists who dig dinosaurs in Eastern Montana will now be able to chemically analyze fossils the same day they're excavated and before degrading begins.

Paleontologists from Montana State University, North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences recently bought and renovated a mobile laboratory that Dan Redding of Rudyard drove to Eastern Montana for the summer.

The lab is the first of its kind and a dream come true, said Mary Higby Schweitzer, a North Carolina paleontologist who obtained the lab with Jack Horner, who is the Ameya Preserve curator of paleontology at MSU's Museum of the Rockies. Schweitzer is a paleontologist at NC State and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She is also a Montana native and former graduate student of Horner's.

"This will be the first ever analytical molecular paleontology lab dedicated to doing analysis of this type on site," Schweitzer said.

Horner added, "The sooner we can analyze the specimens, the better."

Schweitzer's hypothesis is that fossils can stay deep in the ground for 68 million years and because they are in equilibrium with their sandstone environment, they can remain in nearly their original state. It was a deep sandstone environment that preserved the soft tissue Schweitzer discovered a few years ago in the specimen "MOR 1125," dubbed B. Rex, found near Jordan, Mont. Schweitzer also found tissue that showed the Tyrannosaurus rex was an egg-laying female.

Degradation began, however, as soon as field crews removed fossils from the ground and disrupted their equilibrium, Schweitzer said. Changing conditions and exposure to microbes all affected the fossils' condition.

To get a jump on the process and document it as it progresses, NC State provided funding for Schweitzer to purchase the lab and deliver it to MSU. The Museum of the Rockies then paid to adapt the lab for paleontology research. Horner paid for the renovations with money from Colorado Energy Management, which represented an anonymous donor, and Nathan Myrhvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft.

The biochemical lab was originally built by the U.S. Army to use at Superfund sites. At NC State, it was used as a fish ecology lab.

"It was really an amazing system," Schweitzer said. "I think if you were to build a trailer like this, it would cost well over $1 million."

Schweitzer and Horner recently discussed the laboratory while it was parked near the Museum of the Rockies for renovations. Helping with the work were Ben Novak, one of Horner's graduate students, and Liz Johnson and Tim Cleland, both Schweitzer's students.

Almost half of the semi-truck contains a clean laboratory that will require users to don lab coats, lab shoes, gloves and hairnets before entering, Schweitzer said. The rest of the truck contains microscopes, work stations and a computer. Next year, it may also contain a scanning electron microscope and mass spectrometer with analytical capabilities. The entire truck has electricity, air conditioning and heating. It has room underneath for wastewater, diesel fuel and gear.

"It's fun. It's cool. It's the first of its kind," Schweitzer said. "It always makes me happy to come back to Montana, and this new lab is a huge bonus."

Horner said he and Schweitzer wanted to establish a research center, but didn't have enough money so decided to create the mobile lab. The lab will be parked in Eastern Montana during the summer and used by Schweitzer, Horner, their graduate students and visiting colleagues. The rest of the year, it will be parked and used at the Museum of the Rockies.

Along with the lab comes a new way of excavation, Horner said. This summer, instead of painstakingly removing sediment and rock from fossils, then stabilizing the fossils with plaster, the paleontologists will use cranes to remove two duckbill skeletons from Bureau of Land Management property. The workers will remove entire skeletons and encase them -- sediment and all -- in metal frames.

"We are going to take them out whole, regardless of how big they are," Horner said.

The idea is to learn more about fossil preservation, he said. The paleontologists are thinking now that the best preservation comes when bones are buried deep in sandstone.

Source: Montana State University

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