Digging for dinosaurs: Local man helps college unearth bones
The theme for this summer’s reading program at the Detroit Lakes Library is “Dig into Reading,” and what better subject to dig into than dinosaurs?
And who better to help on that dig than Robb Larson, Detroit Lakes, an amateur paleontologist who has been working with Concordia College for 15 years, going on multiple digs and unearthly pieces of history.
“Kids really do like this exhibit,” Dotz Johnson said. Johnson coordinates the children’s activities at the Detroit Lakes Library.
The exhibit is being offered at the library courtesy of Larson and Concordia College. He will be speaking to kids at the library on Thursday, July 11, and the exhibits will be on display for all of July as well.
Keeping the mind young
“As a kid, I had my toy dinosaurs,” Larson said, but like many children, he lost interest in them. Not that paleontology wasn’t of any interest, but it’s hard to stay passionate about something that basically isn’t taught in Minnesota.
Then 15 years ago, while working on a stained glass project, his wife set a brochure down in front of him regarding a class being offered through Concordia College.
“It’s important to keep your mind active,” he said.
So he decided to take the five-week class and ended up staying with the college over the years.
“Obviously I was a much older than average student, but I became a colleague,” Larson said.
He took the initial class with the intention of going on a dinosaur dig. He went several days to Lemmon, S.D., on his first dig.
“I fell in love with the whole process,” he said.
Since then, he has stayed on at Concordia, and helps put together digs for the college.
Digging into history
Each dig is different. Though they follow the same process, the conditions and the finds are different.
In Lemmon, the area was very dense with bones, causing those on the excavation to find many bones.
Larson has also participated in digs near Shell, Wyo., and near Jordan, Mont. Some of the digs have been on private land and some on Bureau of Land Management land. The BLM digs have been by permit only, with strict regulations.
On the digs, the scientists and students have been able to unearth many bones from various dinosaurs, including allosaurus, tyrannosaurus and triceratops.
“To find bones, first you have to have sediment that is dinosaur baring material,” he said.
Minnesota and most of North Dakota and South Dakota don’t have that material, except the northwest corner of South Dakota and southwest corner of North Dakota. Montana and Wyoming are good areas for dinosaur finds.
“In Detroit Lakes, we are only seven hours away from dinosaur baring materials. We’re not that far removed,” Larson said.
Preserving the history
While it’s very rare, if not impossible, to find a complete skeleton of an animal in one spot, sometimes the scientists can find many pieces in one spot. And that can tell a lot about how the animal lived and died.
“You can’t just pull it out of the ground. You lose the scientific value of it,” he said of the bones.
He said that by looking at the surroundings and where the bones came from, scientists can sometimes determine how the animal died and possibly what they ate as well, by what else is found in the dirt around them.
On digs, the scientists have a center stake on the site and they then use GPS systems to track where they are looking for and finding bones. They can then draw a bone map from their findings as well.
If remnants are found, they follow the bones up the hill and look for larger ones. Shovels and pickaxes are used to dig as close to the bone as possible without damaging it, and then awls and paint brushes are used to uncover the bone.
If a bone is in too bad of a shape to fully excavate it or if there are multiple smaller bones in one location, the team will take it out in a matrix of dirt and material, wrap it up and take it back to the lab to be handled more carefully.
They also carry various glues into the field to help hold pieces together as they’re being excavated, that can later be dissolved back at the lab.
In the lab, the crews use air brushes, baking soda sand blasters and other tools to clean up the bones or to get them out of the matrixes of dirt.
They also make casts of some of the bones, which when completed, look very similar to the actual bone. Larson said the casts can actually show attributes of the bone better than the originals sometimes.
The bones at Concordia College are accessible for displays. Because they were unearthed for scientific reasons and not monetary reasons, they are available for others to use and learn from them.
All in a day’s work
During those trips, besides the sometimes harsh condition of the bones are the harsh conditions the scientists have to live through. Larson said it’s very intense heat when they go on their digs in June. Sometimes people get dehydrated or even suffer from heat stroke.
They have to wear long sleeves and hats to avoid sunburn, and they even put up netting to block the sun. He said that it’s not uncommon to find refuge under a vehicle for a couple hours during the hottest times either.
At other times, when he’s gone on digs, the wind is so strong that once it wiped out a row of 13 tents. One dig they went on in November, it snowed.
The land is also known for hosting scorpions and rattlesnakes.
The crew can spend up to six to eight hours a day walking the land and looking for bones.
“You get blisters, bad blisters. You’re hot and tired. All you’re looking at is dirt,” Larson said, describing the feelings on some digs.
After some time though, you forget about the hardships and start looking forward to the next dig.
He said there can be hardships to overcome in the lab as well, but it’s more of a mind factor than the weather.
“In the lab, you wish you were out making more discoveries, but there’s also the satisfaction of the finished (product),” he said.
Regardless of his time spent in the lab, arranging digs or being out participating in a dig, paleontology turned out to be one hobby that Larson won’t be giving up anytime soon.
“Amateur paleontologists can make a big difference,” he said.
To view bones that Larson and other Concordia College students and personnel have found on their digs, along with pictures of the digs, visit the Detroit Lakes Library and check out the displays near the checkout desk and upstairs.
Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield