By Tim Leeds
A Hi-Line paleontological group is looking to capitalize on what may be the most famous dinosaur in the world, and maybe expand north-central Montana's economy in the process.
The Judith River Dinosaur Institute is preparing duck-billed dinosaur Leonardo, found north of Malta in 2000, for display and study. Members hope that promoting Leonardo and the institute's other discoveries could put Malta, and other communities in the area, on the worldwide map.
"With all of our discoveries, especially with Leonardo, the mummy dinosaur, we've gotten international press," said Nate Murphy, curator of paleontology at the Phillips County Museum and research director of the institute.
An article on the National Geographic Web site about Leonardo had 2 million hits in its first 10 days on the site, Murphy said. Stories about Leonardo have been in USA Today, Popular Science and in a French science magazine, and on various technical Web sites and journals. The story of the fossil was a headliner at the 62nd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Leonardo will go into the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-preserved dinosaur ever found, Murphy said.
"We've been kind of overwhelmed by people calling us," he said.
But Leonardo is just one example of the institute's work. Its display at the Phillips County Musuem includes another specimen of the same species as Leonardo, Elvis, previously the best-preserved dinosaur ever found in the state. Murphy is working on preparing Roberta, who was previously known as Bob until the institute discovered another dinosaur was already named that, and that the specimen was probably female.
All three fossils were found near Malta, in a section of Cretaceous rock known as the Judith River Formation, which is exposed at different areas around the United States.
Next year the institute will begin excavation on another record find - the first stegosaurus ever found in Montana, at its location near Great Falls.
The institute is preparing fossils in a new workstation, housed in the old Mister Tire in Malta. The station will provide a benefit besides sorely needed additional space - allowing people to see the fossils as they are being worked on.
"Now we've got some room to stretch out and get some specimens in," Murphy said.
Once the station is complete and opens next spring, separate work areas will be roped off, and people will be able to tour the facility and talk to staffers as they work, then exit through a gift shop. Murphy said that when staffers of the institute prepared dinosaurs in the museum, people were very interested in watching and talking to them.
A grand opening for the workstation is planned for May.
The Green family of Malta sold the new location to the institute at almost no cost, Murphy said, indicative of the support the community has for the institute.
Murphy and his son, Matt, have done extensive work renovating the facility since November and are now preparing fossils in it, but more work still has to be done.
Matt Murphy, 18, who has helped his father look for, excavate and prepare fossils since he was 6, said the work has been pretty intensive since they started moving in in November. They painted the floors and walls, and installed track lighting and preparation equipment, including work benches built at the Malta High School shop.
The Leonardo fossil is groundbreaking in several ways. As well as being the fourth specimen of the duck-billed dinosaur brachylophosaurus ever found, it is also the first articulated subadult of the species ever found. Articulated means the bones were found in the relative positions they would have had in a live dinosaur.
Most importantly, the fossil includes skin, muscles, other soft-tissue structures and even the dinosaur's last meal still in its stomach. Previously, scales and tissue parts have been found on fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of dinosaurs excavated.
Murphy said the soft tissue fossilized with the bones will allow extensive research into parts of the dinosaurs' lives previously only theorized about, such as their habitat and diet.
"His last meal is preserved inside him. What else could be in there?" he said.
Leonardo was named by his discoverer, Dan Stephenson, who found the name "Leonard" carved into some sandstone near the fossil along with the date 1916.
It will take about 18 more months to finish preparing the fossil for display and research.
Preparation includes removing the rock the fossil is encased in, cleaning the fossil both by hand and with pneumatic sandblasting, and hand cleaning and polishing the details.
"We're going to hit it really hard here," Murphy said, because Leonardo will then travel for display in exhibits around the country.
The institute is trying find funding to fully study the fossil once its preparation is complete. CT scans will be used to study the fossilized soft tissue, including the contents of the dinosaur's stomach, but that will probably require a trip to NASA.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has the only scanners large enough to handle the dinosaur, which was about 22 feet long when it died at age 3 or 4, Murphy said. The work will cost about $500,000.
Murphy said the area can capitalize on the fame of Leonardo. Previously, universities and musuems around the country and around the world took advantage of the dinosaurs found in Montana.
"We've got to keep these assets up here in northern Montana," Murphy said. "We need to be looking at ways to bring people here to our neck of the woods."
That was why the foundation was formed. The board, consisting of local residents selected a few weeks ago, will begin working to raise money through tax-deductible donations to create a museum in Malta dedicated to dinosaurs, Murphy said. There is a link on the institute's Web site giving more information about how to join the foundation and how to make donations.
Publicizing the musuem won't be difficult once it is built, Murphy said. Along with the media attention Leonardo has already gotten, including almost 50 on-air radio interviews with Murphy, a two-hour documentary about the dinosaur is planned, and a toy company is looking into making an educational model of the fossil. The educational arm of Universal Studios, the Jurassic Park Institute, is interested in presenting information about the fossil, Murphy said.
The studio has even hinted that the story of Leonardo could be a part of the next Jurassic Park movie, he added.
"I think we're going to get the marketing," he said.
The area could capitalize on a dinosaur museum, especially with an exhibit as famous as Leonardo, he added.
"Dinosaurs pull people, that's a plain fact," he said.
Murphy said he thinks the entire region should pool its resources to come up with a professional, polished package to present all of the attractions in north-central Montana, with the museum as a headliner. That could draw tourists from far away, he said.
"We're spread out, but we're a mighty voice when united," he said.
Visitors to a Malta dinosaur museum could help pay for the exploration, excavation and research of the institute, Murphy said. The institute already uses a variation of that funding, charging a fee for people to participate in its explorations and excavations. It is now taking applications for people to participate in the 2003 session, including the stegasaurus dig, which still has a few openings, he said.
Visitors paying for the work of the institute can benefit science and the local economy, Murphy said, adding that there's nothing wrong with that.
"If you're digging up all these wonderful specimens and nobody comes to see them, what good is it?" he asked.
On the Net: Judith River Dinosaur Institute: www.montanadinodigs.com.