Here is another installment of Getting to Know Local (kind of) Dinosaur Sites. For this article I was fortunate enough to interview Dr. Denver Fowler, curator of Paleontology from the Badlands Dinosaur Museum. I was very excited to conduct this interview especially since Dr. Fowler and his team discovered a new dinosaur this year!!
Jurassic Files: Could you give us a little history of the museum and the area?
Dr. Devner Fowler: “Dickinson Museum Center has essentially two subjects – paleontology and local history. The paleontology side was established in 1994 by Alice and Larry League and was originally called “Dakota Dinosaur Museum” and showcased the fossil collection they had built up. Ownership of the museum contents was transferred to the City of Dickinson in 2015, and I was brought in as curator in April 2016 with the mandate to make a world-class dinosaur museum. That’s a big task!
The museum was officially renamed “Badlands Dinosaur Museum” in October (our new website is coming soon!), and I’m setting about getting our scientific facilities up to scratch – we actually have a decent amount of collections space , and I’ve just upgraded our storage to proper metal cabinets – ready to fill with new bones!
Most of the rocks exposed on the surface in North Dakota were originally deposited after the dinosaurs went extinct, although there are a few areas with Cretaceous dinosaur-bearing rocks exposed. These occur mostly in the southwest corner about 100 miles from Dickinson. Dickinson is, however, host to some important exposures of the Oligocene Brule Formation. This includes bonebeds of the primitive rhino Subhyracodon, of which we have a number of fine skulls at the museum.
Still, I’m a dinosaur person. The geographic scope of the museum is the 4-state area of North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. My fieldwork focuses in Montana and North Dakota, looking primarily at the Hell Creek and Judith River Formations.”
JF: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do here?
DF: “I’m originally from England, but I came to the US to do my PhD with Jack Horner at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. I’ve been collecting fossils for over 30 years, and have been all over the world in various capacities. I’ve collected thousands of dinosaur fossils, especially in the Early Cretaceous of England, and the Late Cretaceous of North America.
My job title in Dickinson is curator, but as the only employed paleontologist I’m a bit of a one-man-band. I collect new specimens, conduct research, create exhibits, run the fossil preparation lab, manage volunteers, give school trips, design children’s activities, and lots of other things too. My wife, Dr. Elizabeth Freedman Fowler (also a paleontologist), teaches at Dickinson State University and has been an enormous help with setting up the paleontology program here. Liz’s specialist area is hadrosaurs -duckbilled dinosaurs, whereas I work more generally on whatever I find fossils of, or have an idea about. In recent years this has been chasmosaurine dinosaurs, but I’ve also published a few papers on the functional morphology of dinosaur claws for example, and I have just (Nov 22nd) published a long term project on Late Cretaceous stratigraphy of the Western Interior, including the stratigraphic ranges of dinosaur species.”
JF: So why dinosaurs? What about them makes them more popular than say, ice age fossils?
DF: “As a kid I liked animals, and fossils were just ancient animals, so after finding a few fossils on family holidays I was hooked. I was never especially attracted to dinosaurs in particular; I had a few books like every other kid, but I was interested in whatever I could find. However, after a while, you end up having found a lot of ammonites and other invertebrates, so you’re naturally drawn to seek out the more rare things, and that means vertebrates.
In terms of enduring public interest… dinosaurs really capture people’s imagination. I think this is partly a historical artifact: Owen was a showman, and really knew what he was doing when he named them “dinosaurs”, It’s such an evocative name. There’s also the fact that dinosaurs are really unlike anything we have alive today, so we have to do some clever detective work to figure out what they looked like or how they lived. The detective work is what excites me, and it’s this process part that I am emphasizing in our new exhibits in Dickinson: how do we actually “create new knowledge”.”
JF: What are some of the most common questions you get?
DF: “People often ask if we’re still digging up new specimens, and they’re often surprised to find out that we have a VERY active field program.
People are also often surprised to find out that there are dinosaurs -fairly- locally; I joke that there are dinosaur bones right here in Dickinson: you just have to dig down a few hundred feet until you hit the Hell Creek Formation. Pretty much all the oil wells round here have to drill down through the Hell Creek formation to get to the Bakken Shale, so it’s not that far fetched of an idea!”
JF: What are some of the things that visitors can look forward to when they come visit?
DF: “We actually have a surprisingly large exhibit – much bigger than people expect. The original exhibit includes full skeletal mounts of Allosaurus and Albertosaurus, real skeletons of Edmontosaurus and Triceratops, a world-class mineral exhibit (with a glow-in-the-dark UV room), and dozens of other exhibit cases containing fossils of all kinds.
Shortly after I started here in April 2016, I borrowed a unique specimen called “Warwick’s Duck” from Museum of the Rockies. This is a pathological hadrosaur that my dad (Warwick Fowler) found when he was out working on my field crew in 2009. Its tail has over 30 horribly injured vertebrae, making it one of the most injured hadrosaur specimens ever found. It had never been on display before, so I have borrowed it for display and study. You can see this unique world-class specimen exhibited in Dickinson in a room at the end of the history hall.
We have a really good Triceratops skull on exhibit. It’s been visible through the lab window for a number of years, but I am going to be moving it out into the main exhibit hall soon so that people can see the other side of the skull – plus I would like all that space back in my lab!
We also have some nice science interactives. In Spring 2017 we installed an augmented reality sand box. It’s ostensibly for kids although pretty much every visitor spends quite a lot of time playing with it. They’re tremendous fun, and all the while secretly teaching about topography and maps. We’ve also got a nice digital microscope with various bugs and other tiny things to look at. Inevitably kids eventually end up pointing the microscope at their clothes or hair. That’s okay: I really wanted these exhibits to encourage curiosity, and kids investigating what the inside of their nose looks like in super-zoom is a sign that the plan is working.”
JF: Anything new that visitors should know about?
DF: “I’m not a believer in 20-year fixed-exhibits: I like to have something new always coming in. Part of my mandate is to change the whole exhibit, so over the next few years you can expect to be seeing constant changes and additions.
I’m currently finishing up an exhibit on dinosaur eggs and babies, and am about to start building a major new exhibit on dinosaur claws. This is based on some of my research over the past few years, and will include some exceptional new feathered dinosaur models– I would go so far as to say these will be the best feathered dinosaur models you can see in the western US, perhaps even the whole continent. The artist (Boban Filipovic) is also a scientist, and his attention to detail and scientific accuracy is far beyond anything I have experienced before; for example, he went to the zoo and took photos down an ostrich’s throat just to get the same region as accurate as possible in our models. Then he sent those photos to me, and I had to decide which ostrich gullet I liked the most (sometimes this job is a bit odd).
We also try to put newly found fossils on exhibit, and we don’t always know what that is going to be. This year we’ve had a really productive field season – we have some exceptional new sites – including three incredible tyrannosaur sites, articulated duckbills… all kinds of amazing fossils. I’m actually fairly hard pressed to know what to prioritize in terms of preparation and collecting. ”
JF: Do you have an on site paleontology lab? If so what kind of work are they doing?
DF: “Yes, we’re fortunate to have a good lab space, viewable from the main exhibit hall. Right now Liz is cleaning up an articulated hadrosaur arm. It’s from a 1/3 grown individual and will hopefully have a complete hand. You can also see preparation of what will be a new species of nodosaur – we have a really nice skull and quite a lot of the skeleton, including many pathological armor plates.
We also have a growing number of volunteers that work on our new finds.
We have lots of great fossils to work on, and a decent set up, although I’d like to buy a few new air chisels (especially for fine work), and we could always do with more volunteers.”
JF: What is your Favorite Dinosaur?
DF: “I used to say Baryonyx, but these days my favorite dinosaur changes depending on what I am working on research-wise or have collected recently. I suppose right now I am excited by alvarezsaurids. Generally I like dinosaurs with interesting ecologies; species that have weird morphology that present us with a puzzle.”
The Badlands Dinosaur Museum is located at 188 Museum Drive East, Dickinson, North Dakota 58601. Their hours of operation are Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm MT year round. Admission is $6.00 for Adults, $5.00 for Seniors, $4.00 for Children 3-12 years of age, and Children 2 and under are Free.
I personally cannot wait to make my first trip out there to see all of the thing I have heard about! I’d also like to thank Dr. Fowler for being so patient with me while I finished writing up this interview.