Havre Daily News
NORTH OF RUDYARD - When Lyla Redding was a little girl, she skittered around the badlands that weave through her family's farmland, playing games of hide-and-seek with her cousins. She would never have guessed that her remote hiding spot, just south of the Canadian border near Rudyard, would one day draw a crowd. This summer, dozens of paleontology students and volunteers have crouched in the nooks Redding once hid in and a film crew is broadcasting their work for Discovery Science Channel and The Science Channel's Web site.
The Museum of the Rockies has two excavation sites on the Reddings' property this summer, each undertaken to answer a specific question, said Jack Horner, curator of paleontology for the museum.
Discovery Science Channel has sponsored Horner's work in the past, and has chosen the Redding site this year, "because it is very scientific and the really scientific ones are hard to get funding for," Horner said.
As part of the Discovery Science Channel's sponsorship, it has funded two film producers to create two-minute-long shows about the excavation process, one of which airs every evening at 6 p.m. The shows first appeared on July 25 and will continue every weeknight through Friday. Those shows and more that have not aired on television can be found on The Science Channel Web site.
The first week of shows focused on the personalities of the people involved in the dig, media producer John Little said Monday. This week's shows will focus on the science. At one excavation site, students are digging up the tail of a hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur. Referred to as the "cows of the Cretaceous," hadrosaurs are the most commonly found dinosaurs in the area, Horner said. Several have been excavated from the Reddings' property.
The excavation of the tail is significant, Horner said, because scientists are trying to learn more about how dinosaurs used their tails. Some scientists think the tails were rigid. Evidence suggests the tails may have been flexible, and Horner said scientists want more data to decide if that was so.
"They're curved in directions we didn't think they could curve," he added.
As crew members excavated the tail on the Redding farm, they encountered a surprise themselves. The team began on June 20 to uncover a tail found last year. They started moving earth, believing that the tail jutted directly back into the bank of the hill. The tail took a turn, however, and the crew followed it, worried that it would run parallel along the hill where they had not moved earth, crew chief and fossil preparator Bob Harmon said.
It turned out the crew had removed just enough dirt above the fossil to get all 13 feet of the tail out, without having to completely change strategies, Becky Schaff, 21, said. Schaff is a paleontology student at Montana State University-Bozeman and has been at the site for a few weeks.
On Monday, she and a classmate, Sarah Michalies, 19, were separating a section of the plaster-encased fossil from the earth beneath it so the fossil could be turned over, covered completely and then moved. Earlier Monday the crew had removed another 5-foot-long section of tail, dragging it with a winch up to a hill where a truck could come to meet it.
"We just don't want anything to fall out the bottom," Michalies said about the reason for encasing the whole thing. As the crew works, they try to expose as little of the bone as possible.
It will take months, and maybe even years, to analyze the find, Horner said. When it is analyzed, it will reveal more about life that existed in the area 75 million years ago.
The badlands are a former river channel, Horner said.
"Everything you see out here is rock that's 75 million years old," Horner said. "You get the rocks that represents the mud that represents the river where the dinosaurs were getting a drink of water when they died."
At the other excavation site on the Redding property, scientists are trying to get an idea of the variety of life that lived in the area 75 million years ago.
That site is called a microsite. It contains the remains of many varieties of smaller dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, Horner said. Rather than producing a museum primadonna such as a Tyrannosaurus rex, it gives a cross-section of life, he added.
After that site has been excavated, scientists will do a statistical analysis of what is found. If many specimens of one animal are found, that animal likely was common to the immediate area, Horner said. If only one or a few specimens of an animal is found, it more likely was swept in by the river that created the badlands.
The Redding farm is one of five excavations the Museum of the Rockies is running this summer, Horner said. He has three other crews working in Montana and one in Mongolia.
The other Montana crews are working on other pieces of the puzzle to go along with the microsite at the Redding farm, he said. The museum recently completed a study of the Hell Creek Formation, found in the eastern part of the state. The Redding excavation is part of a study of the Judith River Formation that is in its third year.
Horner visited the site Monday and today as he toured the work the museum is doing in the state. The one in Rudyard, he said, is one of his favorites.
"The Reddings have given us a great deal of support over the years. They've given us access, and that's the most important thing we can have," he said.
Horner, who grew up in Shelby, did some of his earliest work on the Redding farm.
Lyla Redding and her husband, Dan, have become accustomed to the attention their farm receives in the summer, Lyla Redding said. Her parents first opened up their land to paleontologists in the mid-1970s.
At the time, they probably weren't very concerned about what the scientists were looking for, Redding said.
"They didn't care if people looked around," she said. "Hunters or paleontologists, it didn't make any difference."
University of California, Berkeley and the Museum of the Rockies have each periodically explored the Reddings' badlands since. Bones from the Redding farm are held in Berkeley, Bozeman, New Jersey and Paris. Redding said she's visited many of them in the country and plans to visit the ones in Europe as well.
Next summer Rudyard should have its own fossil, a cast of a duck-billed dinosaur taken from the Redding farm several years ago that the Museum of the Rockies is loaning to the town. That fossil is named the Oldest Sorehead, Redding said.