By: Marlene Affeld
Montana is a paleon-tologist’s paradise and famous worldwide for its wealth of dinosaur fossils. Scientists, consumed with a passion to understand the history of life on earth, have discovered over seventy-five different species of dinosaurs in Montana. More dinosaurs have been discovered in Montana than in any other state in the Union.
New discoveries continue. In 2004, an entirely new species from the Jurassic period, named Suuwassea emilieae was found. The first part of the name means "ancient thunder" in the Crow Indian language; the second part of the name is in honor of Emilie deHellebrath, who funded the excavation.
The new discovery was a 50-foot-long (15-meter-long) sauropod. Sauropods were plant-eating dinosaurs with long necks, whiplike tails, tiny little heads, small beady eyes, short stubby legs and huge fat bellies. This latest discovery was found in the Morrison Formation which runs from New Mexico to Montana.
155 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period of geological history, the Montana landscape was much changed from what it is today. A series of large inland bays of the Pacific Ocean covered much of the region that is now Montana. A semi-tropical flood plain, similar to the Everglades of Florida, provided a lush habitat for the plated Tegosaurus, the massive Diplodocus and the frightening Allosaurus. Found in rocks from the Jurassic Period, fossils of these amazing creatures document the oldest dinosaurs discovered to date.
Almost 75 million years after the Jurassic Period, during the Cretaceous Period, Montana again had plentiful inland ocean bays, this time connected to the Atlantic Ocean. The majority of Montana’s dinosaurs are from this period and include the burrowing Oryctodromeus and the fearsome raptor Deinonychus. Nesting dinosaurs like Troodon and Maiasaura migrated, nested and lived on the coastal plains that surrounded the shallow ocean bays.
Montana has yielded many of the world’s most paleontologically significant dinosaur finds. The Two Medicine Formation has presented the first dinosaur eggs discovered in North America, the first nest of dinosaur babies every found worldwide and the closest bird/dinosaur fossil ever recovered.
Budding paleon-tologists or just anyone interested in dinosaurs are fascinated by the Hell Creek Formation. Cretaceous in age, Hell Creek is a world famous dinosaur fossil collecting area. Many of the last dinosaurs to ever live on the planet, including duck billed dinosaurs, the Rhino like Triceratops and fierce, meat-eating Tyrannosaurus Rex were once abundant there.
Although many of the fantastic fossil finds of Montana are now housed in the Smithsonian and New York’s Museum of Natural History, one may still view some of the original inhabitants of Montana in both county museums and interpretive centers across Eastern Montana.
University of Notre Dame paleontologist J. Keith Rigby led the crew that discovered Peck’s Rex, the 66 million year old Tyrannosaurus rex fossil excavated near Fort Peck, Montana in 1997. Peck’s Rex is one of the most intact skeletons of the species ever found as more than 80 percent of the skeleton was recovered.
In 1985 Montana designated the Maiasaura peeblesorum, or duck-billed dinosaur, as its official state fossil. Maiasaura means "good mother lizard" while the name peeblesorum is named to honor the Peeble family on whose ranch, near Choteau, was the site of an ancient dinosaur nesting ground.
If you wish to explore the fascinating history of dinosaurs, take a road trip on the 1000 mile, 13 stop Montana Dinosaur Trail. The trail was created in 2005 to highlight the unique and, in many cases, world class dinosaur displays, interpretation and programs found in Montana. It is an interesting and fun filled family adventure.
"The Montana Dinosaur Trail is a unique opportunity for visitors to meet prehistoric Montanans, claws, jaws and all", said Montana Commerce Department Director Anthony Preite. "From the museums to the dig sites, each location provides an unparalleled learning experience that tells one of Montana's most fascinating stories and highlights the state's elite status among the profession of paleontology".
"—follow in the footsteps of prehistoric reptiles along the Montana Dinosaur Trail in eastern and central Montana. The “trail,” a map that links the state’s many dinosaur sites, weaves through archaeological stations and dinosaur museums in Ekalaka (pop. 410), Glendive (pop. 4,729), Jordan (pop. 364), Fort Peck (pop. 240), Malta (pop. 2,120), Havre (pop. 9,621), Harlowton (pop. 1,062), Choteau (pop. 1,781), Rudyard (pop. 275), Chinook (pop. 1,386), Bynum and Bozeman (pop. 27,509)."