By Ron VandenBoom
Picture a vast, flat tidal flood-plain, an area not unlike the Florida Everglades or portions of the Gulf Coast -- a semi-tropical, temperate environment of cypress swamps and palm trees.
It is a flat seemingly endless land where periodic floods turn dry land into swamp and continually change the landscape as new deposits of silt fill in old lowlands and highlands are washed into the sea.
Wondering within this vast forest of vegetation are herds of some of the largest creatures to ever walk the earth. Predators, many of equal or even larger stature, stalk the old, the weak, or the young, hoping for an easy meal.
Montana was a strange and foreign place 75 million years ago when a 40-foot long species of duck-bill dinosaur known today as a lambeosaur roamed at will over the vast tropical landscape.
We know today what kind of world existed 75 million years ago partly because of the work of people like Vickie Clouse, Havre's resident paleontological expert.
Clouse points to the vast coal deposits that exist throughout this part of the country as evidence of Montana's geological past.
"It takes a lot of vegetation and thousands of years to make that much coal," she said.
But it's not the vegetation as much as it is the creatures that excite Clouse.
"It was exciting to say the least," Clouse said about the time back in 1990 when she was working to excavate a flesh-eating Albertosaurous from the bank of Fresno Reservoir. "Any time you see one of those big sets of jaws staring at you and the teeth are intact and part of the skull is there and the other bones are there, (it's exciting.)"
Similar feelings of excitement must also have raced through her when in 1993 she and a friend, Jay Harmon, were prospecting and discovered what Clouse called "this really wonderful theropod tooth, (A theropod is one of any number of meat-eating dinosaurs that prayed on or savaged other dinosaurs.)
"As I looked around, I noticed all of these little black spots on the ground -- some of the spots made a circle," she said. "It was something I hadn't seen before."
The circle turned out to be dinosaur egg shells with baby dinosaur bones everywhere, Clouse explained.
"I had already been told we would not have dinosaur egg nests here like they do at Egg Mountain," she said. "The reason that we would not have those is that if this was a swampy environment here, swampy environments are acidic, and acidic environments will destroy egg shells in no time flat."
But something had to have been blocking the acidic environment from destroying the eggs because here they were.
Over time, Clouse would find 15 different nests in an area she estimates is about 100 square kilometers or about 40 square miles. She is sure there is much more to be found within the confines of the site, but for the time being, has quit looking for new finds.
"I have enough to do with what I've already discovered," she said. "It's a big study area."
Her discoveries have proven to be even more than she had dreamed.
"I have been told by people who have seen both this site and Egg Mountain, who are paleontologists and geologists, who say that it rivals Egg Mountain in many ways and, in fact, possibly exceeds Egg Mountain in other ways," she said.
The reason this site appears unique, Clouse said, is that there are more different types of egg shells here.
"We have lots of things that they don't have," she said.
Clouse explained that each site was a contemporary of the other with the primary difference being that one was in the highlands while this site was in the lowlands next to the sea.
"It's going to make an interesting study for someone comparing the two," she said.
Another thing about the site that could make an interesting study will be trying to determine what it was that blocked the acidity that should have destroyed the nesting ground 75 million years ago.
"There's enough for several lifetimes of work," she said, referring to the amount of material and the unknowns surrounding the site."
Some of the nests are stacked vertically, one on top of the other, maybe a meter deep, showing that the area was used more than once and suggesting that the dinosaurs returned to the same area continually to lay eggs.
"Some of these are pretty thick areas," Clouse said. "There would be a nest and there would be a flood event of some sort ... and then there would be another nest squashed together."
The eggs are normally about the size of a bowling ball or soccer ball and are confirmed to have belonged to a species of lambeosaur. The largest nest so far contained 22 of the eggs, but Clouse warns that they do not yet know for sure how many eggs an average nest might have contained.
What species of lambeosaur or even whether it is a know species is also still in the process of being determined. The lambeosaur is a type of duck-bill dinosaur that is best known for the crest found on the top of its head. Clouse said that it is suspected the crest was probably used for species identification. display, or attracting a mate, but its real purpose is not known.
Numerous baby bones have been unearthed during the excavations with a femur of many of the tiny skeletons being only about three inches long. This indicates the size of the infants to have been small enough to present a full-grown predator with little more than a gulp of food.
It leaves as a mystery, however, the large quantity of theropod teeth found in the vicinity of the nests.
"And there are more of those teeth than there are of shed duckbill teeth," Clouse said, noting that the farther you get from the nest the fewer teeth are found.
Despite the implication that predatory dinosaurs were feeding on the young, the only teeth marks Clouse has found on any of the bones come from mammal bites and lack the distinctive serrated teeth marks characteristic of the theropod dinosaurs.
Most significant of all of her finds has been eggs that contain nearly fully developed embryos.
Dinosaur eggs have over the last several years been found on every continent, "but when it comes to embryos, that's a whole different story," Clouse said. "Especially if they're intact and near term and fully formed."
The importance of the find stems from the fact that if you can identify from the parts and the skull of the embryo what kind of dinosaur it is, you can then know what laid the egg.
Clouse emphasized that there is really no other way to find this out short of finding a dinosaur sitting on the egg.
"Still," said Clouse, "finding the embryos and this many eggs clustered into this small of an area ... makes it pretty rare."
Excavating a site that is this large, this important, and that contains this many specimens, is more than one person, or even a small team of people, could do in a reasonable length of time.
Fortunately for Clouse, every summer she is presented with a new and enthusiastic team of investigators who participate in the MSU-Northern sponsored research expeditions. Students of paleontology arrive in Havre every summer from all across the nation and around the world to help excavate the site.
Last summer about 80 people became aware of Northern and learned something about this valuable research thanks to the expeditions and the few weeks of work she can afford to spend digging on the site. Each student will spend one to two weeks at the site.
"It's the only way I can get this done," she said. "They provide the work crew and they provide the funding. The one thread that holds everybody together is dinosaurs."
Clouse also feels she owes a lot to the farmers and ranchers who have allowed her and the expeditions onto their property to dig.
"The land owners have been so good to me," she said. "And I think most of them really do care about the community and hope their grandchildren will be able to enjoy what has been found in the digs."
She is constantly aware that she is working in the farmers' back yard and has gone out of her way to keep the location of the dig secret and protect their property from curiosity seekers and thieves who might try to destroy or pillage a valuable scientific find.
"None of this would be possible without their cooperation," she said.
Despite the fact the farmers own the property and, therefore, anything found on it, Clouse is confident that someday the finds will be able to be displayed for the general public. How, where or when this may happen is still, she thinks, years away, but hope springs eternal in the hearts of paleontologists -- it's their nature.