Eerie Lake Erie is home to a giant ship graveyard: Nearly 2,500 sunken vessels
Lurking below the surface of Lake Erie is a ship graveyard that is estimated to include up to 2,500 vessels, with the earliest wreck dating to the 1800s when it was part of the water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the upper Midwest.
Kevin Magee, an engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said in a statement: ‘Storms and waves are probably the number one reason ships sank in Lake Erie.
‘In fact, we think Lake Erie has a greater density of shipwrecks than virtually anywhere else in the world—even the Bermuda triangle.
The oldest shipwreck lurking below Lake Erie is the Lake Serpent, a 47-foot schooner that was lost in 1829, and then there is the Sir CT Van Straubenzie that is the deepest known wreck in the lake.
The exact number of wrecks in Lake Erie is not known – it could be anywhere from 500 to 2,500 – but explorers and researchers have been able to confirm 277 sunken ships.
Lake Erie is the fourth largest of the five Great Lakes and spans across the US and Canadian borders, reaching into the Ontario Peninsula, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
The giant lake became an important route during the fur trade in 1700 to 1800s, which is when many ships disappeared beneath its depths.
Lake Serpent, the oldest wreck, left Cleveland in September 1829 for the 55-mile trip to the Lake Erie Islands – but it never made it back to its return destination, Smithsonian Magazine reports.
Bodies of the crew, Captain Ezera Wright and his brother Robert washed ashore, but the ship was lost until 2018.
Archaeologists combing the area found remains of a vessel but were unsure if it was the legendary Lake Serpent.
Looking through historical records of the ship, the team learned that it was carrying mounds of boulders before it went missing and divers identified the payload on the vessel in question.
The final voyage of Edmund Fitzgerald began on November 9, 1975, at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock No.1, Superior, Wisconsin.
Closer to the shore of Traverse City, Michigan are several ghostly hulls laying on the lake bottom, reports Lake Leen Erz.
The wrecks are in Manitou Passage, which was often a haven for cargo-laden ships travelling through the area during the bustling lumbering industry in the 19th century.
When the water is clear, anyone could spot the sunken ships, which includes the James McBride, a 121-foot-long brig that was lost in a storm in 1857.
The Rising Sun’s resting places can also be seen from the shoreline.
This is a 133-foot-long steamer that sank in 1917. There are hundreds of small hulls littering the lake bottom, but one ship is known for sinking farther than another vessel – the Sir CT Van Straubenzie.
This ship was lost during a collision with a steamer on September 27, 1909, and quickly sank 205 feet into Lake Erie eight miles east of Long Point. The Department of Transport reported 3 deaths, including a female cook.
The wire rigged forward mast is still standing, collision damage can be seen on the starboard side and the cabin is collapsed. There is a wheel, and the cast iron bell is in the bow of the wreck – all of which have been taken over by barnacles.
‘One of the remarkable things about Lake Erie and Great Lakes shipwrecks is how well they are preserved due to the cold, freshwater,’ said Magee. ‘Wrecks in saltwater start corroding immediately. In the Great Lakes, you can find old wooden ships that are hundreds of years old that look like they just sank.’
Vikings were in North America in 1021, researchers say
Vikings from Greenland — the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas — lived in a village in Canada’s Newfoundland exactly 1,000 years ago, according to research published Wednesday.
Scientists have known for many years that Vikings — a name given to the Norse by the English they raided — built a village at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland around the turn of the millennium. But a study published in Nature is the first to pinpoint the date of the Norse occupation.
The explorers — up to 100 people, both women and men — felled trees to build the village and to repair their ships, and the new study fixes a date they were thereby showing they cut down at least three trees in the year 1021 — at least 470 years before Christopher Columbus reached the Bahamas in 1492.
“This is the first time the date has been scientifically established,” said archaeologist Margot Kuitems, a researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the study’s lead author.
“Previously the date was based only on sagas — oral histories that were only written down in the 13th century, at least 200 years after the events they described took place,” she said.
The first Norse settlers in Greenland were from Iceland and Scandinavia, and the arrival of the explorers in Newfoundland marks the first time that humanity circled the entire globe.
But their stay didn’t last long. The research suggests the Norse lived at L’Anse aux Meadows for three to 13 years before they abandoned the village and returned to Greenland.
The archaeological remains are now protected as a historic landmark and Parks Canada has built an interpretive centre nearby. It’s listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The scientific key to the exact date that the Norse were there is a spike in a naturally radioactive form of carbon detected in ancient pieces of wood from the site: some cast-off sticks, part of a tree trunk and what looks to be a piece of a plank. Indigenous people occupied L’Anse aux Meadows both before and after the Norse, so the researchers made sure each piece had distinctive marks showing it was cut with metal tools — something the indigenous people did not have.
Archaeologists have long relied on radiocarbon dating to find an approximate date for organic materials such as wood, bones and charcoal, but the latest study uses a technique based on a global “cosmic ray event” — probably caused by massive solar flares — to determine an exact date.
Previous studies have established there was such a cosmic ray event in the year 993 that for a few months caused greater than usual levels of radioactive carbon-14 in the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere.
Trees “breathe” carbon dioxide as they grow, and so the researchers used that radioactive carbon signature to determine which of the annual growth rings seen in cross-sections of the wood was from 993, Kuitems said.
They then used a microscope to count the later growth rings until the bark of the wood, which gave them the exact year the tree had stopped growing — in other words, when it had been felled by the Norse.
To their surprise, each of the three pieces of wood they tested was from a tree cut down in 1021, although they were from three different trees — two firs and probably one juniper.
The researchers can’t tell if the date of 1021 was near the beginning of the end of the Norse occupation, but they expect further research on other wood from the site will expand the range of dates, Kuitems said.
The Norse voyages to Newfoundland are mentioned in two Icelandic sagas, which indicate L’Anse aux Meadows was a temporary home for explorers who arrived in up to six expeditions.
The first was led by Leif Erikson, known as Leif the Lucky — a son of Erik the Red, the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland.
L’Anse aux Meadows, too, was expected to be a permanent settlement, but the sagas indicate it was abandoned due to infighting and conflicts with indigenous people, whom the Norse called skræling — a word that probably means “wearers of animal skins.”
The sagas refer to the entire region as Vinland, which means “Wineland” — supposedly because it was warm enough for grapes used for wine to grow.
Since Newfoundland itself was then too cold for grapes, the name suggests the Norse also explored warmer regions further south, and pieces of exotic wood found at the site also indicate that Kuitems said.
The use of an ancient cosmic ray event to exactly date pieces of wood is a relatively new development, and similar techniques are being used to establish firm dates at other sites, said Sturt Manning, a professor of archaeology at Cornell University, who was not involved in the new study.
“It’s a clever application,” he said. “This is the first clear evidence of Europeans arriving in North America.”
Newly identified American sabre-toothed cat species was larger than a tiger and hunted rhinos
Scientists have identified a huge new saber-toothed cat species, Machairodus lahayishupup, that would have prowled the vast areas of North America between 5 and 9 million years ago, using detailed fossil comparison techniques.
One of the biggest cats ever discovered, M. lahayishupup is estimated in this new study to have a body mass of some 274 kilograms (604 pounds) or so, and possibly even bigger. It’s an ancient relative of the well-known Smilodon, the so-called saber-toothed tiger.
A total of seven M. lahayishupup fossil specimens, including upper arms and teeth, were analyzed and compared with other species to identify the new felid, with the fossils collected from museum collections in Oregon, Idaho, Texas, and California.
“One of the big stories of all of this is that we ended up uncovering specimen after specimen of this giant cat in museums in western North America,” says paleobiologist John Orcutt from Gonzaga University. “They were clearly big cats.”
“What we didn’t have then, that we have now, is the test of whether the size and anatomy of those bones tell us anything – and it turns out that yes, they do.”
The age and size of the fossils gave the researchers a good starting point. Then they used digital images and specialized software to find similarities between the relics – and differences from other cat species, which was just as important.
Points of reference on the specimens showed that they were from the same giant cat and that this cat was a species that hadn’t been identified before. Additional evidence came from the teeth, although the researchers admit that the details of how early saber-toothed cats were related to each other is a little “fuzzy”.
Upper arms are crucial in these cats for killing prey, and the largest upper arm or humerus fossil discovered in the study was about 1.4 times the size of the same bone in a modern-day lion. That gives you an idea of just how hefty and powerful M. lahayishupup would have been.
“We believe these were animals that were routinely taking down bison-sized animals,” says paleontologist Jonathan Calede from Ohio State University. “This was by far the largest cat alive at that time.”
Rhinoceroses would have been abundant at the same and may have been animals that M. lahayishupup preyed on, alongside camels and sloths significantly bigger than the ones we’re used to today.
While the discoveries made of this new species so far don’t include the iconic saber teeth themselves, it’s significant that M. lahayishupup has been identified mostly from humerus bones, showing what’s possible with the latest analysis software added to many hours of careful study.
Peering back so many millions of years into the past isn’t easy, and the researchers say that a more detailed saber-tooth cat family tree is going to be needed to work out exactly where this species fits in. The findings also open up some interesting evolutionary questions about these giant cats.
“It’s been known that there were giant cats in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and now we have our own giant saber-toothed cat in North America during this period as well,” says Calede.
“There’s a very interesting pattern of either repeated independent evolution on every continent of this giant body size in what remains a pretty hyper-specialized way of hunting, or we have this ancestral giant saber-toothed cat that dispersed to all of those continents. It’s an interesting paleontological question.”
Humans May Have Smoked Tobacco 12,300 Years Ago, Scientists Find New Evidence in Utah
Humankind’s addiction to tobacco runs deep: Archaeologists in Utah have discovered what appears to be the earliest known use of wild tobacco, stretching back 12,500 years—some 9,000 years earlier than the previously dated evidence.
A team from the Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Henderson, Nevada, and the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado, found Nicotiana attenuata, or coyote tobacco, seeds around a manmade hearth or firepit at the Wishbone site in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert, not far from Salt Lake City.
The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
Wishbone got its name from the large number of waterfowl bones found at the site, where ducks were likely the mainstay of the prehistoric human diet. But tobacco wouldn’t have grown in what was then a marshy area, with its closest natural habitat some eight miles away.
“It was a completely-out-of-nowhere find. It’s very uncommon to find tobacco seeds, even at later sites: they are really small and they are not food, so they don’t occur very often,” Far Western’s Daron Duke, the paper’s lead author, told Haaretz. “Theoretically, it is possible a duck could nibble on a tobacco plant, but that duck would have to avoid hundreds of square kilometres of its typical diet, go up a rocky mountain range, which they don’t do, and eat a fairly uncommon plant.”
Also in the ashes were seeds from other plants that ancient humans are known to have consumed, suggesting that people intentionally brought tobacco seeds to the site—the population at Wishbone appears to have travelled widely each year.
The seeds wouldn’t have burned well, so they were probably not being used to feed the fire. Most likely, the ancients liked to chew tobacco, releasing the addictive nicotine for a dopamine high.
“To see them, fireside, using tobacco—we can pretty readily imagine what they were getting out of it,” Duke told Scientific American. “It’s very human to imbibe.”
Duke has been conducting research at Wishbone, in the Utah Test and Training Range, for 20 years, and found the remnants of the ancient hearth—just a “little black smudge on the open mudflats of the Great Salt Lake Desert,” he told CNN—back in 2015.
The site has also yielded Haskett-style spear tips made from obsidian, a kind of volcanic glass, that would have been used to hunt large game.
Wishbone has a “unique potential to tell us about how people lived,” Duke told Inverse. “It truly is a fascinating place to work, as one of the most barren settings you can find in the United States.”
To figure out what materials had been left behind in the ashes, scientists used a technique called manual flotation, submerging the sediment samples in water and separating organic and non-organic material.
Radiocarbon dating showed the fire burned approximately 12,300 years ago, with four wild tobacco seeds identified amid the charred remains.
Before the team’s discovery, the earliest documented use of tobacco was in smoking pipes used in the Alabama region some 3,300 years ago, which was dated in 2018.
The new evidence suggests that tobacco use was already firmly entrenched in Native American cultures by that point in time.
“People in the past were the ultimate botanists and identified the intoxicant values of tobacco quickly upon arriving in the Americas,” Duke told Live Science.
The long-held Clovis theory suggests people began travelling over the land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska some 13,500 to 13,000 years ago. But some recent archaeological discoveries—including the continent’s oldest human footprints—suggest that pre-Clovis people had a presence in North America during the Ice Age, perhaps up to 20,000 or 30,000 years ago.
“On a global scale, tobacco is the king of intoxicant plants, and now we can directly trace its cultural roots to the Ice Age,” Duke told Reuters.
Historic First Baptist Church Original Permanent Structure Discovered During Archaeological Dig
Inside the small barrier fence that encircled the S. Nassau Street dig site, there was a buzz of excitement. Because they couldn’t be certain of their latest discovery, the archaeologist team working there resisted the enthusiasm. An older 16-by-20-foot foundation extended along the eastern wall, almost to the asphalt street, sandwiched between the walls of an 1856 building.
For Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Archaeology Jack Gary, it was a good sign that the team had uncovered First Baptist Church’s first permanent church structure dating back to the early 1800s — after a year of excavating at the site of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches.
But Gary and his team had to be sure it was the original structure.
The team got to work digging up a portion of the foundation near the front steps of where the original building would have sat. There, the team uncovered an 1817 coin, hairpins, buttons and furniture tacks. For Gary, the discoveries solidified the team’s assumptions. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Archaeology team had discovered the original early 1800s church building that First Baptist Church’s original congregation worshipped in.
For Connie Harshaw, the president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, an organization aimed at the preservation and conservation of Williamsburg’s historic Black churches, the discovery is one the descendants of the church never anticipated.
Harshaw is among other living descendants who can trace their lineage to the church’s first congregation. In recent years, the descendants have worked alongside Colonial Williamsburg and other community partners to ensure the church’s legacy is historically preserved and to reconcile past injustices.
“Never in our wildest imagination did we think that we would find intact burials or even the foundation of an 1818 structure. That is just mind-blowing,” Harshaw said. “It’s a pretty remarkable discovery.”
As the Founding Fathers stood in a Philadelphia statehouse and declared the nation’s independence, in direct defiance of the king, another group of individuals was reclaiming a piece of their own independence. In 1776, a group of free and enslaved Black men and women met in secrecy with the sole purpose of worshipping together. Despite the risks, as laws forbid them to congregate, they became the original First Baptist Church congregation.
From there, the congregation has become one of the oldest Black churches in the country, creating a community that has continued its legacy for centuries. While the original congregation continued to meet, it would not have a permanent structure until the 1800s when a Williamsburg man, Jesse Cole, moved by the congregation’s hymns and prayer, offered them a building on what is now Nassau Street in the Historic Area. The structure on the property was referred to as the Baptist Meeting House.
Its existence was short-lived, however, as a tornado destroyed it. The 1856 building was constructed over top of it, then it was paved over into a parking lot, remaining buried for 165 years. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced Thursday that its archaeological team discovered the structure which will bring the organization one step closer to its final goal: preservation, recreation and interpretation.
In order to better understand the site, Gary said the team is working to better understand the people who used to congregate within its walls. By uncovering artefacts, relics from the past, the team can paint a better picture of what their life was like.
“We’ve gone from being able to say, this is the first church building to being able to say a little bit about the people themselves,” Gary said. “Any church will tell you that the church is the people. It’s not the physical evidence, it’s the people and we have both here.”
The artefacts that were uncovered underneath the original structure, hairpins, buttons and furniture tacks, reveal a lot about what the original congregation was wearing at the time, according to Gary. The items were uncovered in front of where the church steps would have been located. As the church was swept, the inside contents made their way over the front steps and into the ground only to be uncovered nearly 165 years later, Gary said.
“It was an exciting day when we made that discovery,” Gary said. “Now, we can start to better understand the building and the people who congregated there. That’s what makes this project so special.”
Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists, under the guidance of First Baptist Church, first began digging at the site in September 2020. The team has been working in phases since then in hopes of uncovering the previous church structures, including Thursday’s discovery of the 1818 Meeting House.
In addition to the original structure, the archaeologists have discovered at least 25 confirmed human burials with the first bone fragments uncovered in February. During Phase II of the dig, one of the first priorities was to determine how many individuals may be buried in the west end of the South Nassau Street lot after discovering evidence of grave shafts during the first phase.
By July, the team had uncovered 21 grave shafts. The most recent grave was discovered just last week, likely predating the church building, inside the foundation of the 1856 church. A community meeting is scheduled for Oct. 30 for the church’s descendants to discuss the next steps and make decisions regarding the investigation of the burial sites.
The discovery of the 1818 structure comes ahead of the church’s community-wide 245th-anniversary celebration that will begin Saturday and conclude mid-November.
When the church was relocated in 1956 to 727 Scotland St., some of the descendants remember worshipping, as children, in the 1856 building. The recent discoveries, for many, have been a long time coming, Harshaw said.
“It has been more than a year for them, it has been since 1956. They were disappointed and hurt when the church on Nassau Street, was levelled and paved over with a parking lot,” Harshaw said. “They’ve carried the history of that church and their memories with them.”
Excavations at the Nassau Street site will continue from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, weather permitting. The public is welcome to view the site. This is an ongoing multi-year project funded primarily by individual donors.
Ancient Americans made art deep within the dark zones of caves throughout the Southeast
A group of recreational cavers explored a small, muddy stream tunnel south of Knoxville, Tennessee, on a cold winter day in 1980. They navigated a slippery mud slope and a tight keyhole through the cave wall, trudged through the stream itself, ducked through another keyhole and climbed more mud. Eventually, they entered a high and relatively dry passage deep in the cave’s “dark zone” – beyond the reach of external light.
On the walls around them, they began to see lines and figures traced into remnant mud banks laid down long ago when the stream flowed at this higher level. No modern or historic graffiti marred the surfaces. They saw images of animals, people and transformational characters blending human characteristics with those of birds, and those of snakes with mammals.
Ancient cave art has long been one of the most compelling of all artefacts from the human past, fascinating both to scientists and to the public at large. Its visual expressions resonate across the ages as if the ancients speak to us from deep in time. And this group of cavers in 1980 had happened upon the first ancient cave art site in North America.
Since then archaeologists like me have discovered dozens more of these cave art sites in the Southeast. We’ve been able to learn details about when cave art first appeared in the region, when it was most frequently produced and what it might have been used for. We have also learned a great deal by working with the living descendants of the cave art makers, the present-day Native American peoples of the Southeast, about what cave art means and how important it was and is to Indigenous communities.
Cave art in America?
Few people think of North America when they think about ancient cave art. A century before the Tennessee cavers made their own discovery, the world’s first modern discovery of cave art was made in 1879, at Altamira in northern Spain. The scientific establishment of the day immediately denied the authenticity of the site.
Subsequent discoveries served to authenticate this and other ancient sites. As the earliest expressions of human creativity, some perhaps 40,000 years old, European palaeolithic cave art is now justifiably famous worldwide.
But similar cave art had never been found anywhere in North America, although Native American rock art outside of caves has been recorded since Europeans arrived. Artwork deep under the ground was unknown in 1980, and the Southeast was an unlikely place to find it given how much archaeology had been done there since the colonial period.
Nevertheless, the Tennessee cavers recognized that they were seeing something extraordinary and brought archaeologist Charles Faulkner to the cave. He initiated a research project there, naming the site Mud Glyph Cave. His archaeological work showed that the art was from the Mississippian culture, some 800 years old, and depicted imagery characteristic of ancient Native American religious beliefs. Many of those beliefs are still held by the descendants of Mississippian peoples: the modern Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Coushatta, Muscogee, Seminole and Yuchi, among others.
After the Mud Glyph Cave discovery, archaeologists here at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville initiated systematic cave surveys. Today, we have catalogued 92 dark-zone cave art sites in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. There are also a few sites known in Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin.
What did they depict?
There are three forms of southeastern cave art.
Mud glyphs are drawings traced into pliable mud surfaces preserved in caves, like those from Mud Glyph Cave.
Petroglyphs are drawings incised directly into the limestone of the cave walls.
Pictographs are paintings, usually made with charcoal-based pigments, placed onto the cave walls.
Sometimes, more than one technique is found in the same cave, and none of the methods seems to appear earlier or later in time than the others. Some southeastern cave art is quite ancient. The oldest cave art sites date to some 6,500 years ago, during the Archaic Period (10,000-1000 B.C.). These early sites are rare and seem to be clustered on the modern Kentucky-Tennessee state line. The imagery was simple and often abstract, although representational pictures do exist.
Cave art sites increase in number over time. The Woodland Period (1000 B.C. – A.D. 1000) saw more common and more widespread art production. Abstract art was still abundant and less worldly. Probably more spiritual subject matter was common. During the Woodland, conflations between humans and animals, like “bird-humans,” made their first appearance.
The Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1500) is the last precontact phase in the Southeast before Europeans arrived, and this was when much of the dark-zone cave art was produced. The subject matter is clearly religious and includes spirit people and animals that do not exist in the natural world. There is also strong evidence that Mississippian art caves were compositions, with images organized through the cave passages in systematic ways to suggest stories or narratives told though their locations and relations.
Cave art continued into the modern era
In recent years, researchers have realized that cave art has strong connections to the historic tribes that occupied the Southeast at the time of the European invasion. In several caves in Alabama and Tennessee, mid-19th-century inscriptions were written on cave walls in Cherokee Syllabary.
This writing system was invented by the Cherokee scholar Sequoyah between 1800 and 1824 and was quickly adopted as the tribe’s primary means of written expression.
Cherokee archaeologists, historians and language experts have joined forces with nonnative archaeologists like me to document and translate these cave writings. As it turns out, they refer to various important religious ceremonies and spiritual concepts that emphasize the sacred nature of caves, their isolation and their connection to powerful spirits. These texts reflect similar religious ideas to those represented by graphic images in earlier, precontact time periods.
Based on all the rediscoveries researchers have made since Mud Glyph Cave was first explored more than four decades ago, cave art in the Southeast was created over a long period of time.
These artists worked in ancient times when ancestral Native Americans lived by foraging in the rich natural landscapes of the Southeast all the way through to the historic period just before the Trail of Tears saw the forced removal of indigenous people east of the Mississippi River in the 1830s.
As surveys continue, researchers uncover more dark cave sites every year – in fact, four new caves were found in the first half of 2021. With each new discovery, the tradition is beginning to approach the richness and diversity of the Paleolithic art of Europe, where 350 sites are currently known. That archaeologists were unaware of the dark-zone cave art of the American Southeast even 40 years ago demonstrates the kinds of new discoveries that can be made even in regions that have been explored for centuries.
A photo shared by park officials shows one such tree was recently found lodged in rocks, its bark and limbs scraped away by centuries locked in ice.
“The log pictured here might at first seem to be just another piece of driftwood coming down Exit Creek, but it tells a much more interesting story,” the park wrote in a Sept. 8 Facebook post.
“This section of wood was once part of an ancient forest that was entombed by Exit Glacier around 1300 years ago, sometime between AD 641-771. As the glacier has continued to melt back these pieces of wood are slowly being uncovered.”
Scientists refer to such debris as interstadial wood, from forests that “thrived prior to the last ice age.” The forests grew over decades-long periods “between glacial advances when local conditions were temporarily conducive to forest growth,” NPS officials say.
The driftwood is often dismissed by tourists as recently fallen trees, but it offers “a unique opportunity to experience and understand the dynamic power of glaciers,” the park says.
Kenai Fjords National Park, created in 1980, describes itself as “a land where the ice age lingers.” “Nearly 40 glaciers flow from the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords’ crowning feature.
Wildlife thrives in icy waters and lush forests around this vast expanse of ice,” the park says. “Today, shrinking glaciers bear witness to the effects of our changing climate.”
“Now the glacier is retreating faster, much faster, in winter and summer,” the site reported. The glacier is now receding nearly 300 feet annually, exposing sections of land that were covered for centuries, the NPS reports.
A team of palaeontologists from the University of Washington and its Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture excavated four dinosaurs in northeastern Montana this summer. All fossils will be brought back to the Burke Museum where the public can watch palaeontologists remove the surrounding rock in the fossil preparation laboratory.
The four dinosaur fossils are the ilium—or hip bones—of an ostrich-sized theropod, the group of meat-eating, two-legged dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and raptors; the hips and legs of a duck-billed dinosaur; a pelvis, toe claw and limbs from another theropod that could be a rare ostrich-mimic Anzu, or possibly a new species; and a Triceratops specimen consisting of its skull and other fossilized bones.
Three of the four dinosaurs were all found in close proximity on Bureau of Land Management land that is currently leased to a rancher.
In July 2021, a team of volunteers, palaeontology staff, K-12 educators who were part of the DIG Field School program and students from UW and other universities worked together to excavate these dinosaurs.
The fossils were found in the Hell Creek Formation, a geologic formation that dates from the latest portion of the Cretaceous Period, 66 to 68 million years ago. Typical paleontological digs involve excavating one known fossil.
However, the Hell Creek Project is an ongoing research collaboration of palaeontologists from around the world studying life right before, during and after the K-Pg mass extinction event that killed off all dinosaurs except birds.
The Hell Creek Project is unique in that it is sampling all plant and animal life found throughout the rock formation in an unbiased manner.
“Each fossil that we collect helps us sharpen our views of the last dinosaur-dominated ecosystems and the first mammal-dominated ecosystems,” said Gregory Wilson Mantilla, a UW professor of biology and curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Burke Museum. “With these, we can better understand the processes involved in the loss and origination of biodiversity and the fragility, collapse and assembly of ecosystems.”
All of the dinosaurs except the Triceratops will be prepared in the Burke Museum’s fossil preparation laboratory this fall and winter.
The Triceratops fossil remains on the site because the dig team continued to find more and more bones while excavating and needs an additional field season to excavate any further bones that may be connected to the surrounding rock. The team plans to finish excavation in the summer of 2022.
Called the “Flyby Trike” in honour of the rancher who first identified the dinosaur while he was flying his aeroplane over his ranch, the team has uncovered this dinosaur’s frill, horn bones, individual rib bones, lower jaw, teeth and occipital condyle bone—nicknamed the “trailer hitch,” which is the ball on the back of the skull that connects to the neck vertebrae.
The team estimates approximately 30% of this individual’s skull bones have been found to date, with more potential bones to be excavated next year.
The Flyby Trike was found in hardened mud, with the bones scattered on top of each other in ways that are different from the way the bones would be laid out in a living animal.
These clues indicate the dinosaur likely died on a flood plain and then got mixed together after its death by being moved around by a flood or river system, or possibly moved around by a scavenger like a T. rex, before fossilizing. In addition, the Flyby Trike is one of the last Triceratops living before the K-Pg mass extinction. Burke palaeontologists estimate it lived less than 300,000 years before the event.
“Previous to this year’s excavations, a portion of the Flyby Trike frill and a brow horn were collected and subsequently prepared by volunteer preparators in the fossil preparation lab.
The frill was collected in many pieces and puzzled together fantastically by volunteers. Upon puzzling the frill portion together, it was discovered that the specimen is likely an older ‘grandparent’ triceratops,” said Kelsie Abrams, the Burke Museum’s palaeontology preparation laboratory manager who also led this summer’s fieldwork.
“The triangular bones along the frill, called ‘epi occipitals,’ are completely fused and almost unrecognizable on the specimen, as compared to the sharp, noticeable triangular shape seen in younger individuals. In addition, the brow horn curves downwards as opposed to upwards, and this feature has been reported to be seen in older animals as well.”
Amber and seed pods were also found with the Flyby Trike. These finds allow paleobotanists to determine what plants were living alongside Triceratops, what the dinosaurs may have eaten, and what the overall ecosystem was like in Hell Creek leading up to the mass extinction event.
“Plant fossil remains from this time period are crucial for our understanding of the wider ecosystem. Not only can plant material tell us what these dinosaurs were perhaps eating, but plants can more broadly tell us what their environment looked like,” said Paige Wilson, a UW graduate student in Earth and space sciences. “Plants are the base of the food chain and a crucial part of the fossil record. It’s exciting to see this new material found so close to vertebrate fossils!”
Museum visitors can now see palaeontologists remove rock from the first of the four dinosaurs—the theropod hips—in Burke’s palaeontology preparation laboratory. Additional fossils will be prepared in the upcoming weeks. All four dinosaurs will be held in trust for the public on behalf of the Bureau of Land Management and become a part of the Burke Museum’s collections.