In our 89th episode, we had the pleasure of speaking with David Trexler, Cory Coverdell, and Kara Ludwig from the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum, Montana.
To learn more about the museum, check out our video in part 3 of our #EpicDinosaurRoadTrip.
Episode 89 is also all about Shantungosaurus, one of the largest known ornithischians.
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In this episode, we discuss:
- The dinosaur of the day: Shantungosaurus
- Name means “Shandong Lizard”
- Type species is Shantungosaurus giganteus
- Described in 1973 by Hu, and known from five incomplete skeletons
- Found a bone bed of five individuals, none complete
- Composited bones to mount one of the largest hadrosaurids
- Composite skeleton is mounted at the Geological Institute of China in Beijing, and is 48 ft (14.7 m ) long
- Another mounted skeleton, which used to be called Zhuchengosaurus maximus, is 54 ft (16.6 m) long
- Synonym is Zhuchengosaurus maximus
- Zhuchengosaurus turned out to be a different growth stage of Shantungosaurus
- One of the largest known ornithischians
- Probably the largest non-sauropod (largest ornithischian)
- May have weighed up to 16 tons (18 short tons)
- Skull that was found is 5.3 ft (1.63 m) long
- Spinosaurus had similar length, but didn’t weigh as much
- Unclear why it was so large
- Saurolophine hadrosaurid that lived in the late Cretaceous in what is now China
- Xu Xing and colleagues said it is similar to Edmontosaurus
- No crest on the top of the skull, so not a saurolophine, but had a large nasal opening
- Near its nostrils is a large hole, possibly covered by a loose flap that it could inflate to make sounds
- May have made sounds to defend its territory
- Had a toothless beak, but its jaws had 1500 chewing teeth
- Hadrosauridae (duck billed dinosaurs) is a family of common herbivores from the Cretaceous whose fossils have been found in Asia, Europe, and North America
- Fun fact: Even though snakes can’t see as wide of a spectrum of red as dinosaurs probably could, they can “see” infrared (AKA heat). In fact the pit viper is named after a pit that looks a lot like a nostril, but is actually a sensitive infrared detector. And they appear to use this organ while hunting to find an exposed area on warm blooded prey. These IR detecting pits appear to have evolved at least twice independently among different groups of snakes, so it’s possible that maybe a few dinosaurs evolved the ability too. And if say T-rex had evolved infra-red vision we couldn’t tell by looking at birds since T-rex had already split from the group of dinosaurs that later evolved into birds.
For those who may prefer reading, see below for the full transcript of our interview withDavid Trexler, Cory Coverdell, and Kara Ludwig:
Garret: So I guess the biggest question, the easiest question, well maybe not the easiest answer, is what drew you to Bynum to open a dinosaur museum here?
David Trexler: Well my mother found her first dinosaur bone just about five miles west of here back in 1917. My family homesteaded here, and I knew that there were dinosaur remains here before I knew that there were dinosaur museums. So it’s always been here that was my first place to look. But then I have worked pretty much all the important places in western North America, and what that has done is you have to leave home and look at other places before you realize how special home is. And for me the wonderful thing is the Two Medicine formation turned out to be unique in the world. We’ve found so many firsts, if you will, so many new things that it really was a spectacular place to be for paleo.
Garret: Great. And speaking of firsts, you guys found locally the first nesting dinosaur I guess you would say.
David Trexler: We found the first baby dinosaur bones in a nest anywhere in the world, yes. That discovery changed the way the entire world thought of animals in general, and reptiles at least, not just dinosaurs because of the unique way they were preserved. So really cool find.
Garret: Yeah definitely, and another unique thing about your museum is you have the world’s largest dinosaur replica I guess you’d call it.
David Trexler: Yeah, reconstruction.
Cory Coverdell: So it’s 137 feet long, 137.5, and it’s a model of Seismosaurus, which was found down in New Mexico.
David Trexler: Some people no longer use the name Seismosaurus there’s been a paper or two published changing the name, but there’s some problems with those publications and someday somebody’s going to go through that whole thing and it’ll either be back to Seismosaurus or it’ll be Diplodocus halli.
Sabrina: How did you decide to make that replica?
David Trexler: The replica was built actually because we were contracted to build the centerpiece for the largest travelling exhibition in the world, the thing called Dino Fest back in the 1990s. And the largest exhibition wanted the largest dinosaur to be a part of it. The problem was at that time a couple of paleontologists were having this bit argument over whose is biggest, so you know Dave Gillette with his Seismosaurus versus Jim Jensen and Supersaurus, and we had to determine which one would have actually been the biggest. And then part of what we were asked to do was determine whether there could have been something even bigger out there, and of course there always could have been.
But what we ended up doing at that point was going to every museum in western North America that had sauropod remains and contacting basically all the other museums around the world and getting measurements on certain bones that would give us an idea on what sizes they had, and just bone pieces. We had many many more bone pieces in collections than we do skeletons, so pieces tell us more actually. And the result of all of that was we were able to build this replica to not only match what we determined to be slightly the largest of the two, Seismosaurus versus supersaurus, but then scale it up slightly to match the largest individual bones we also were made aware of. So that’s how it came to be.
Garret: And then when the exhibit ended you just got it back and wrapped it up in your museum?
David Trexler: When the exhibit ended the company contacted us and asked us if we’d like to buy it. And an isolated museum out in the middle of nowhere, we knew how much they paid to have it built and there’s no way we could ever afford that. But year’s negotiation and a really creative refinance on almost everything we owned we ended up with it.
Garret: Cool. Do you think it draws a lot of people to the museum?
David Trexler: It probably accounts for maybe one out of seven people that come through the door I would say.
Sabrina: That’s pretty good.
Garret: Yeah. Speaking of things that bring people in, there’s the Montana Dinosaur Trail I wanna say it’s called with 12 museums I wanna say, or there abouts?
Cory Coverdell: 14.
Garret: 14, okay. I know one of them closed recently.
Cory Coverdell: It used to be 15.
Garret: Oh 15.
David Trexler: Actually we’ve had two close and we’ve added one since the inception.
Garret: Cool. Do you think that brings a lot of people here too? Do you get a lot of people with that, there’s like a passport or something you can get stamped at every museum?
David Trexler: I suspect that it brings in actually a few more than the actual Seismosaurus exhibit. It’s probably on the neighborhood of one out of every five people come through the door are aware of the Montana Dinosaur Trail.
Kara Ludwig: A lot of times they’re not necessarily actively doing the passport, but they now know oh the Montana Dinosaur Trail, I should go to all those museums.
Garret: Do you, I was wondering how that worked because I know you get like a shirt or something if you go to all of them. Do you guys have like a stock of these shirts? Or what do you do when someone gets here they’re like okay I’m done?
David Trexler: The shirt is sent to them.
Garret: Oh gotcha.
Cory Coverdell: There’s the one lady who takes care of all the background for the organization and she gets the shirt orders from us and sends out the shirt.
Sabrina: And then of course you’ve also probably drawn in a lot of people with your instructor-led like the digs and…
Cory Coverdell: We ran between three and four hundred people every summer through our field programs. So it’s quite a few people, it’s actually one of the primary ways we fund our organization.
David Trexler: And because of the programs we have actually more attendance other than the big government-funded facilities, you know, really are advertised as draws in their own right. Things like Makoshika Park and the Museum of the Rockies, the Fort Peck Interpretive Center, we’re number four after those three.
Garret: Oh wow, that’s great. Especially for a town of what did you say, 31?
David Trexler: 31.
Sabrina: 37 in the summer.
Garret: How many of the 31 people that live in Bynum work here?
Cory Coverdell: Work here or associated with this place? Eight in the winter and fourteen.
Garret: That’s good. I bet if you did like the statistics you might be like the largest percentage employer of like a city.
Cory Coverdell: We should run those statistics, that would be fun.
Garret: You probably employ more people than like Microsoft employs in like Seattle and things like that.
Cory Coverdell: But only during the summer.
Sabrina: Well I was thinking about like what we did today. What was the official name if it?
Kara Ludwig: So it was a full day dig program, so we like to take people out to our sites and show them how to identify dinosaur bone, get them understanding how paleontology actually works. It’s not all finding a perfect dinosaur in the ground with just a layer of sand covering it and there you go and you just dig out each bone and there you go.
Sabrina: It’s none of that.
Kara Ludwig: None of that. We are very focused on scientific research and not just in collecting things because they’re neat. We really want to get it across to the public that paleontology actually is proper science, and that it involves a lot of acquiring data and interpreting things based on that.
Cory Coverdell: Finding neat stuff is really cool though.
Kara Ludwig: Finding neat stuff is really cool.
Garret: And when did you guys start that program?
David Trexler: Actually the program started this facility.
Garret: Oh really?
David Trexler: We were doing research in public education programs through the Old Trail Museum for many years, but in 1995 the board down there decided that times were tough and research really didn’t contribute that much, and this area was already famous for what had already been done. So they really wanted to switch more to just straight interpretive programs, and some of us hadn’t gone to school for nine years after high school and obtained degrees to tell people what our colleagues were doing and not being able to do it ourselves. So we came up here.
Sabrina: What’s the most exciting thing someone has found? I know someone found a tyrannosaur tooth on one of the sites.
Garret: On one of the digs, as a layman.
Sabrina: Just as, yeah in the nesting site.
Kara Ludwig: Yeah so just last week we had a woman find a tyrannosaur tooth, and the week before that a child actually found the first embryonic bone at our nest site. That was pretty exciting. And it was kind of just luck but you know that’s really cool.
Cory Coverdell: From our programs we’ve had people find dinosaur feet. There’s been part of a, we think it’s an […] (00:10:11) arm probably, we don’t know exactly what it is yet. A lot of the little bits, a lot of cool stuff though.
David Trexler: The most significant thing participants have found so far with us is a site that was discovered in 1997 where we have remains, we collected over 2,000 specimens, individual bones and then parts, from at least 11 individual animals. And it’s the first site where multiple individuals of tyrannosaurs and hadrosaurs have been found together without being a, what we call an accretional bone bed, without being just something that’s carried down river and piled. These animals were actually interacting with each other when they died. Makes it a world-class discovery, and actually papers are in press now.
The problem we’ve got when you find something like that is you’ve got you know 20, 30, sometimes even a 50 year lag based on how long it actually takes to preserve and prepare all of these bones out of the matrix. That discovery is now still the main thing you see out there people working on, and hopefully we’ll have enough of it done this year that, more than just the introductory papers that have actually been published will get done this year.
Garret: Wow that’d be great.
Sabrina: How many different sites have you had participants be on?
Cory Coverdell: Well over 50.
Garret: Are they mostly local? I know you do some joint work with another museum in Montana.
Cory Coverdell: We’ve actually collaborated on dig sites all across Montana with six other members of the Montana Dinosaur Trail and we do a lot of work all over. It has to do with staffing more than anything. We have you know degreed paleontologists on staff which most of the other facilities don’t, so they like to share us bits. It is one of the nice things that we can do that other facilities, a couple of them have wonderful preparation labs, people who can put these things back together in the lab. So a lot of times it’s a synergistic thing. They do some of the work, we do some of the work, and we collaborate on the publications and works to everybody’s benefit.
Garret: That’s great.
Sabrina: It is. I was thinking today as a participant though that’s putting a lot of trust into your participants. Because like me I thought it was really good how much time you took to explain to us okay this is how you find fossils beforehand and like things to look for and stuff but like I was very bad at finding fossils and was a little bit worried like oh no I hope I don’t mess anything up when I’m digging.
Garret: Yeah. You didn’t.
Sabrina: If you want, could share with us like some of the things you were telling us about, like okay what do you look for when you’re looking for fossils?
Kara Ludwig: So when we are looking for bone and trying to determine the difference between bone and rock you’re looking for a difference basically in color, shape and texture. Often the color of bone is very dissimilar from the rock that it’s embedded in, not all the time. Not all the time. And then the shape, something that is shaped like a bone, or often because of the structure of bone things are more angular and less rounded unless they’ve been carried away from some place upstream. And then the texture, again this is probably the biggest thing, is looking for something that is the texture of bone. Looks kind of like a cluster of straws that are bunched together, so you see a linear pattern on one side and then you would see something that is more porous at the end. That’s not always easy either, but those in combination. And the lick test, where if you lick your thumb and then touch the bone and see if it sticks, you will actually feel that bone stick to, like suck up that water thanks to capillary action you can figure out whether it’s bone. Hopefully. Again, not all the time.
Garret: Yeah, and you also have that, what’s the device you just showed us called?
David Trexler: It’s called a scintillometer. So it detects radiation. We don’t get to use it all the time but every once in awhile we’ll find a quarry that has some radioactive dinosaur bone and we can use that to do a little bit of exploration. It’s not super useful but it is a lot of fun. I usually just look for something that’s not rock. So when you look at sandstone all day through a microscope you get pretty accustomed to recognizing something that’s not sandstone.
Kara Ludwig: And if you look for certain layers, like we were talking about the difference between something that’s gonna be a […] (00:15:26) soil that has a lot of plant material in it versus something that looks grey and dull and like it didn’t have as much oxygen content because you don’t have as much oxidation of iron stuff in it, you might be more likely to find bone in there. Dave actually did a lot of surveying in his airplane.
David Trexler: One of the things that we look for are certain textural patterns in rock layers, and the key to that is really terrestrial sediments are a jumble. You look at a series of rock that was laid down originally on land and it looks different you know if you travel a few feet either direction or whatever, and that’s very distinctive rather than seen the same rock stratum, you know, across for miles on an exposure. So that’s really the difference between terrestrial and marine sediments, and so that’s the first key. You have to look for something terrestrial. And then from an airplane you can still spot you know terrestrial sediments. You can also spot certain features that are giveaways for you know signs that say look here. One of the things that tell us a lot are accretional beds, channel lag deposits, basically where streams used to flow and at the bottom of the stream bed there’s always the rocks that are pushed along on the bottom of the stream. In areas where fossils are preserved a lot of times those are actually the fossils we’re looking for. And what that tells us in an area like that is a general picture of what animals and sometimes even what plants were living in that particular region and in that snapshot in time. So if you see a structure that is obviously a filled-in channel, which is if you know what you’re looking for not too difficult to spot from an airplane, then you can say okay at the bottom of that structure there’s probably one of those things we should look for.
Garret: And that plus 20, 30, 40 years of experience.
David Trexler: We won’t go into how many years of experience.
Cory Coverdell: 50? 60?
Sabrina: Is that how you found the site where you found your nodosaur?
Cory Coverdell: No, the nodosaur was near a site we were already working, and there happened to be a road that some people had tried to cut into the, to get to the lower site, and just one day I was walking up the road because we’d been working this site for two, three months, and when I got to the top of the hill I looked down and there’s this little thing, it looked kinda like a turtle shell. But when you looked closer it turned out to be a piece of armor, one of the scoots from an armored dinosaur. So we got out and we started poking around looking a little bit closer and you find another one, find another one, we dug back a little bit, turns out we found the better part of a hind leg from that animal, and this was just late in the fall so we basically had to cover everything up and come back to it. So we came back the next year and started digging and it turns out that there was probably 60 or 70 percent of that animal still under the ground, so it was a pretty cool find.
Garret: That’s what you were saying, that’s kind of idea. You want just the edge of the dinosaur sticking out.
Cory Coverdell: Exactly, the ideal find for a paleontologist is to just find the tip of the tail sticking out or the end of a toe sticking out, and then for the entire animal to still be under the ground.
David Trexler: Unfortunately we don’t find animals all laid out like you picture a skeleton. If you’ve ever seen an animal carcass decay it’s only held together for a few days at most and then pieces start disappearing. So actually this nodosaur was probably buried quite rapidly because the bulk of the animal is not articulated, it’s not in order, but it’s what we call associated. Basically most of the bones that went to the animal are still in the general area.
Sabrina: When will you know enough to be able to name it?
David Trexler: As soon as Cory finishes the preparation on it.
Cory Coverdell: Yeah I’ve got that jacket and that jacket left, so… Next year probably.
Garret: How long did it take you to get that out of the rock?
Cory Coverdell: Two months.
Garret: Oh that’s actually quicker than I would have thought.
David Trexler: Out of the ground.
Cory Coverdell: Out of the ground.
David Trexler: He’s been working on it for, taking it out of the jackets and things for the last two years.
Cory Coverdell: Two years, so we dug that in the summer of 2012. Found it follow 2011, and then I’ve been working on it ever since.
Garret: I was kind of wondering, it’s a little bit of an aside, but how do you know, you had mentioned that you go roughly a meter away from the last bone that you find. Is that basically how you decide okay this is all of it, I’m gonna wrap it up in plaster and take it out?
Cory Coverdell: It’s really just an arbitrary number. At some point you can dig for another 50 meters and not find another item, another piece, so you just set one meter. One meter’s attainable. So you would set it at one meter, you dig past that, and if you don’t find anything else you find a different direction to go.
David Trexler: And some sites you wouldn’t quit there, other sites you might quit sooner. The heart of it is experience and learning how bones are deposited. We do a lot of experimentation with bones in streams and flumes to determine how carcasses can be deposited, but you know what that will tell us is which direction to dig in and how far to dig, because you know I have dug on quarries where the bones are a meter apart, and I’ll tell you that’s a miserable thing to do.
Cory Coverdell: Were those sauropod quarries?
David Trexler: Yes.
Cory Coverdell: Oh. Metered long bone a meter apart makes for a real big quarry.
David Trexler: It does.
Garret: I think the other big dinosaur discovery that you haven’t named yet is that displetosaurus.
Cory Coverdell: That’s part of the Bob Quarry that Dave was talking about earlier. Well we’ll work on that over the next few months and hopefully we’ll have a publication about this time next year.
Cory Coverdell: Sounds about right doesn’t it?
David Trexler: It will be submitted about, well, sometime between November and this time next year. So the first of at least six publications we have listed that we went to do on that. Couple of those we still have a lot of preparation to do so that’s one of those sites that is not just a single episode. That’s kind of an entire person’s lifetime career. It’s like not a good thing to find when you’re a fledgling institution.
Cory Coverdell: Someone’s PhD, someone’s post-doc, someone’s post-post-doc.
David Trexler: Pretty much.
Garret: How many paleontologists do you have on staff?
David Trexler: There’s two of us with graduate degrees. We have three more that are adjunct staff if you will. They’re people on call that come and work part time and have particular specialties, you know. When we find something that is in their realm of expertise they get involved. Otherwise they have real jobs elsewhere.
Garret: Cool. And you said it grows in the summer a little bit, more people show up to help? Or are those more like volunteers?
David Trexler: Our staff grows as well. We’ve got a geologist that’s actually been with main section of GSA for many years that comes out and teaches a class with us every summer. A lot of people like that that you know can afford a week or two. Our facility is mostly volunteer and everything we do is paid for by what comes through the door so we can’t afford to hire people like that full time so they show up when they can afford to and when we can afford to have them.
Sabrina: Is there anything else that people should know about this museum?
David Trexler: For a little museum we have already in our collections more significant specimens than probably anyone else on the Montana Dinosaur Trail except Museum of the Rockies. There’s us and a couple others that really have a lot of good stuff that we’ve found already. Our mission is actually to incorporate the public as much as possible in what we do, and…
Cory Coverdell: Hands-on education with actual, actual research.
David Trexler: So we really are interested in people coming and seeing what we do, and that leads into one of my big missions if you will, my soap box is paleontology is not a dead science, no pun intended. Well yes there was a pun intended, but the idea is so many of the things that we are doing that help modern human life and lifestyle comes from discoveries that we in the earth sciences have made, but we never get credit for it so any time I have a venue like this I like to talk about it. You know if it weren’t for us and our discoveries people would still think that alligators and crocodiles were these primitive creatures that if they were disturbed would eat their young, and they would still think that turtles and crocs had the same cold-blooded metabolism. There would be no 30 plus major telescopes looking, scanning the stars for the next big rock from space that might hit us. And you know there’s issues with climate change that we have talked about that probably five, ten years from now you will hear all kinds of money being sent to modern climate research based on what they’ve got inaccurate at the moment. So we contribute a lot but it’s hard to make people understand that understanding the past is key to understanding what this Earth is capable of and what we’re going to face at the present and in the future. But that’s really what we do.
Sabrina: Yeah, it’s important.
Garret: Yeah and we had a great time going out and learning. It was very educational, very fun.
Kara Ludwig: Yay, good.
Sabrina: What’s your favorite dinosaur? We’ll just go around.
Cory Coverdell: Mine is the one that I found. I don’t know what its name is.
Sabrina: Do you have any ideas for names or is that something that…
Cory Coverdell: Not that I’m gonna put on a podcast.
Sabrina: That’s fair.
Cory Coverdell: Depending on how frustrating it is it has several interesting names.
Kara Ludwig: I like the Xenosaurus because it’s very odd and Microraptor again because it’s very odd.
Cory Coverdell: You can relate to it right?
Kara Ludwig: Yeah. Just like me.
David Trexler: Mine has always been the one that my family and I have been involved with virtually every major discovery of since its first being known, and that’s Maisaura.
Kara Ludwig: Montana State fossil.
Garret: Put it on a license plate.
David Trexler: Although my license plate, because of my last name my nickname is Trex, so I have Trex on my license plate. It wasn’t until I actually got it and somebody saw it and came in, oh you like T-rex? No, not particularly. Well you have it on your license plate. No… I guess I do. Sorry about that.
Garret: That’s great.
Sabrina: Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Kara Ludwig: Thank you guys, thanks for coming out.
Sabrina: It was great.
Kara Ludwig: Thanks for not breaking anything and for never having me freak out because you never said uh-oh.
Sabrina: We kept that to ourselves.
Garret: Until we figured out that we didn’t ruin anything.
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