October 24, 2013 | Volume 118, Issue No. 43

Fossils lead to adventures

Ron Anick of Moose Lake always has been interested in fossils, and his son, Eli, 9, has inherited that interest. The two have spent hours digging and finding fossils in South Dakota over the past few years.

Eli works the bank on a dig in South Dakota.

“He has been interested in dinosaurs ever since he could talk,” said Ron in a recent interview. “He could say their names. I was always interested in this when I was younger but I had no money to travel. Now I’m more established.”

And travel they did. And they found what they were seeking.

“Eli and I went out there in 2009,” said Ron. “We went on a fossil-hunting trip to Utah. We also made a quick trip through the Badlands.”

The duo found Trilobites, extinct marine anthropoids, Ron explained.

“Those are pretty common fossils,” Ron added. “They are a few centimeters in length to several inches long.”

Eli was just 5 at the time. The trip introduced him to paleontology.

Three years later, in the summer of 2012, the father-and-son team traveled back to the Badlands of South Dakota, and they also visited the Black Hills.

“We like to go off the beaten path,” said Ron. “We took our fossil hunting kits, consisting of rock hammers, dental picks, brushes and trowels. We actually found fossilized shells in the Black Hills. In the Badlands we found numerous bits of past dinosaur bones.”

Ron explained that the Badlands had Pierre shale at the bottom. At one time there had been black mud at the bottom of a very large inland sea that stretched across what is now the United States.

“After the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, this area pushed up through geological forces and drained,” added Ron. “There are various layers of sediment and rock piled hundreds and hundreds of feet deep. Those formed the layers of the Badlands.

“The layers are perfectly flat. They represent very distinct geologic eras. If I find a bone, I can almost date it.

“Eventually erosion started. The rate of erosion is greater than grasses can take hold. The Badlands erode one to three inches a year, which is extremely fast. In some places it can be more.”

Ron explained, as a comparison, that the granite at Mount Rushmore erodes one inch in 10,000 years.

“The Badlands is one of, if not the greatest, depository for prehistoric mammals in the world,” said Ron. “Scientists come from all over the world on expeditions.

“You can hunt in a spot and find nothing. Then you can come back in six months and find a skeleton.”

The fossils aren’t souvenirs to take home.

“It’s illegal to take fossils from public land,” Ron added. “We found bits of bones but we have to leave them in place. We found them all over.

“On our most recent trip we identified half a dozen sites where the bones had weathered out.

“I took a GPS reading to get the exact coordinates, along with the elevation, and then we went to the ranger station and reported our finds.

“Of the six that we identified they could only find three. There had been rainstorms, and the others had been covered up.”

“On our most recent trip to the Badlands in July 2012, we hiked around and found a few specimens,” said Ron. “Those weren’t significant finds. They had eroded and crumbled. In some cases, they couldn’t determine what something was.”

Ron found an expert in the field of paleontology, and has been back to South Dakota since under his guidance.

Walter Stein of Paleo Adventures is based in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, in the northern Black Hills. The city is described as “a stone’s throw away from some of the most important dinosaur dig sites in the world.”

“He contracts with the various ranchers in South Dakota,” explained Ron. “Those ranches are 6,000 to 8,000 acres.

“We were on a 6,500-acre ranch. There was an agreement that allowed Walter to come and bring tourists in so they could spend time looking for fossils.”

Ron explained that people can take fossils off of privately-owned land as long as one has permission. On public land, the finder has to be a licensed paleontologist with a permit to take fossils.

The Hell Creek Formation extends from South Dakota through Wyoming to Colorado. It is a late Cretaceous formation, which means the ends of the dinosaur, explained Ron. That ended 65 million years ago, when the asteroid hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs.

“It is a high and dry area now,” Ron added. “It is very open with alternating layers of sand and gravel. It is fairly easy to dig there. We dig with a screwdriver. At one time, it was a riverbed.”

A rancher’s wife had found the site in the 1970s, Ron explained. Stein secured a contract, and, during several years of digging, mapped out the area. Diggers can find tumbled bone, ranging in size from the size of a fingernail to several inches long. A tooth draw is a large amount of teeth in an area, as well as larger bones.

“He is a professional,” said Ron. “He specializes in late Cretaceous animals. He is very enthusiastic about dinosaurs and fossils but is concerned about preservation as well.

“Most people go home with a small bag of bones and teeth.”

Large bones that are found could end up in a museum with the person’s name on it, said Ron.

“When we were there in 2012, we came back with small pieces, like Triceratops teeth,” Ron related. “We thought that was just wonderful!”

Ron called Walter that December to set up the next excursion for this past July.

In February, Ron married Kim, a co-worker, and added her daughter, Breanna Owens, to his family. Eli is a student at the Moose Lake School, and Breanna continues to attend school in Willow River. She is a year younger than Eli.

“We spent two days digging,” Ron explained. “The kids just loved it. They found fossils. That was awesome. Breanna found a raptor tooth and a couple of pieces of rib bone. I found a Nanotyrannus tooth. A Nanotyrannus is a small version of a T-rex. The tooth still had the serrated edges.

“It’s very humbling to sit there and hold something situated around 65 million years old. I ask myself, ‘What did this animal look at?’

“My wife found a similar tooth that was broken.”

The intense interest of Ron and Eli prompted Stein to invite Ron to come back in September as a colleague, not as a paying customer.

“Over Labor Day weekend, I drove out there,” said Ron. “We dug out a femur bone that weighed 150 pounds.

“On the final day, we stayed at the field station prepping some large bones. That gave me an experience that I would not normally get. He wants me to come back next year, again as a colleague. I would help him and the customers.”

Ron said that he has asked Stein to come to this area and speak to the students at the Moose Lake and Willow River Schools.

“He could do a presentation to the elementary grades and bring samples of dinosaur bones. He is a wonderful orator,” Ron concluded.

For more information, visit the website, PaleoAdventures.com.

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