DINOSAURS: their life, death and politics

michael leyden 8/6/98

Death brings many people to life in northeastern Montana each summer. But the deaths did not just occur in Big Sky Country nor were they recent. Autopsies are incomplete despite the lengthy interval between the time of death and now. The time span is over 65 million years because the deceased are dinosaurs.

Earthwatch is a non-profit organization which sponsors about 150 scientific research teams each year and christens butchers, bakers and candle stick makers as aide-de-camps for studies from such exotic sites as Tonga to the more geographically mundane spots: Minnesota. It was a dozen years ago that an Earthwatch catalog lured me to

• Arica, Chile, to assist in the autopsy of mummies. Subsequent trips to

• Frick, Switzerland (Plateosaurs dinosaurs); and

• South Shields, England (Roman Fort on Tyne)

preceded the 1997 and '98 expeditions to Fort Peck, Montana; for studies ominously entitled: End of Dinosaurs.

In between the latter two excursions was a journey to Yuxi City, Yunnan Province, China. More dinosaurs.

Fort Peck is a tiny dot on the map but it wasn't always that way. FDR did a lot of dam things during his tenure as various agencies erected three record-sized barriers:

• Grand Coulee - the largest concrete structure;

• Hoover - the tallest concrete weir; and

• Ft. Peck's 4 mile dirt pile draws accolades as the biggest earthen dam.

For the better part of the 1930's Ft. Peck's population teetered around 30,000 and life there featured a playhouse open 24 hours a day; a hospital; schools and shopping facilities. LIFE magazine's first cover on November 23, 1936, featured an image of Ft. Peck Dam that Elizabeth Bourke White's saw through her viewfinder . Eleven years after that famous photograph was taken, the Oscar winning film was "Forever Amber," and it was the search for amber that has been in Fort Peck forever which drew me to Montana a half century after Linda Darnell starred in that story of English history.

Dr. J. Keith Rigby, Jr., is a Notre Dame paleontologist who has been trekking from NW Indiana to NE Montana each summer for a decade and a half. Assisted by his students and Earthwatch volunteers he has leveled and rearranged many hillsides in quest for an answer to the dinosaurs' demise. His great discovery was found among the residue from tons of sifted soils samples: bones, teeth, and amber. Forever the amber has gripped a secret and it isn't the mythical residual DNA that spawned the thesis of Jurassic Park, and it's clone, The Lost World of Jurrasic Park. Inside this impervious tree sap are bubbles of air -- Jurassic air. Analysis of the gas molecules points conclusively to the fact that the famous Chixulub asteroid which crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago did not exterminate the dinosaurs.

There are no fossils of anything that looks like a dinosaur in rocks that were deposited more than 225 million years ago (mya). Their appearance after this time served as a rationale to create the Mesozoic Era - the time of 'middle life' which lasted about 160 million years and is divided into three periods: Triassic; Jurassic and Cretaceous; names which have interesting origins.

Triassic comes from the study of three strata of rocks

in Germany where these unique animals were found.

Jurassic's origins are from the Jura Mountains in Switzerland where

my 1988 Earthwatch was based.

Cretaceous refers to chalk-like deposits which host

dinosaur remains found above the Jurassic beds.


Atop the Cretaceous layers are beds which supposedly have no dinosaur fossils and marks the beginning of the Cenozoic Era (recent life) and its first subdivision, the Teritary Period. The gap between the last dinosaur beds (Cretaceous) and the first sediments without dinosaur fossils (Teritary) is referred to as the K-T Boundary.

There is a protocol for everything and geological naming follows the rules and regs like anything else. The letter (C) had already been "taken" as an abbreviation for the Carbonaceous Period so the letter (K) was chosen for the German word meaning Cretaceous.

The Politics of Science

News headlines, theatre marquees and television schedules are ablaze with offerings about asteroids crashing into earth and the consequent extinction of life. "How big was the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs?" screams a scientist in the film, "Deep Impact." Everyone seems to know that a celestial object collided with earth and erased the dinosaurs from the planet. They know that because of great media coverage to a hypothesis proposed by Nobel Physicist Luis Alvarez in June 1980. They know that because Alvarez was politically very well connected and intimidating soul who could shout down any opponent who proposed an alternative reason why the "Terrible- Lizards" (a.k.a. dino-saurs) are no longer around. His idea received the most press coverage because he engaged in a sometimes ethically questionable and self-serving public relations program. Science is not always pure and clean and filled with logic. It is conducted by human beings - folks who have egos. Sometimes self-preserving behaviors cause the logic to dissolve. That was the late Dr. Alvarez.

Walter Alvarez is the son of Luis; has a PhD in geology, and according to lore gave his father a three-layered rock as a gag Christmas gift to illustrate that sedimentology was much more interesting than physics. The bottom layer of the sample was deposited in the waning stages of the dinosaurs (Cretaceous) while that on top accumulated when the reptiles were finally extinct (Teritary). Hmmm, the father wondered, what was that stuff in the middle layer? Analysis of the chemicals therein showed a very high amount of a rare-earth element, iridium. As might be assumed from it's name, iridium is rare on earth but not in asteroids. Thus the idea of cosmic collisions was born since the iridium, the elder Alvarez inferred, was imported from outer space. Data compiled in the 18 years since the idea was proposed has unquestioningly proven that an asteroid did leave a huge fingerprint; crater if you will, in the Gulf of Mexico. This blast from the past probably did impair the health of the dinosaurs, but it didn't cause their extinction.

So What Did Happen?

Thirty-five million years before the asteroid hit, the dinosaurs began to fade. There were about 600 dinosaur Genera in their heyday that had shrunk to about 37 as the asteroid neared earth. After the crash there were at least 17 still monster-mashing over the earth and they did so for another thousands of years. The Alvarez collision concept had all dinosaurs disappearing almost immediately; say a decade or so. Finding dinosaur remains in Teritary rocks would signal that there is flaw in the collision idea. Rigby's got such critters.


Another dent in the armor of the asteroid theory is that crocodiles, alligators and other reptiles sailed right through the K-T Boundary in numbers that did not waver. Mammals were not critically affected either. With the asteroid model they all should have suffered equally.

In addition to these crucial factors that hollow the Alvarez theory, Rigby has those amber samples. Analysis of the air locked within over 90 pieces from Montana and more than 400 from around the world shows the atmospheric oxygen content used to be 35% whereas it is now 21%. Perhaps the dinosaurs were brought to their knees by oxygen starvation. This is just part of Dr. Rigby's Pele Hypothesis.

Before Pele was a Brazilian who kicked soccer balls at the speed of asteroids, Pele, the Roman God of Fire ruled the underworld. Rigby chose Pele as the name for his concept that a long term change in climate which spelled the end to the dinosaurs. In this thesis these changes decreased atmospheric ratios of oxygen. Dinosaurs had poor oxygen-transporting mechanisms and lacked a diaphragm, a mammalian device that greatly reduces the hardship of breathing. Crocodiles and gators are reptiles that did not die out because their lower metabolic needs required less oxygen. This is just one observations that Pele (theory) can explain but Alvarez cannot.

Changing the Lesson Plan

In the Earthwatch catalog (www.earthwatch.org) it said researchers in the "End of Dinosaur" project would gather soil samples in the morning and sieve them amid the afternoon sun in the ponded waters of the Missouri River - the Fort Peck Reservoir. That didn't happen.

Those plans changed a few weeks before our arrival when four members of the preceding group stumbled upon some bone scraps. Doc, that's Rigby's conversational first name, told the neophytes that it wasn't worth investigating. However these relics of death brought their curiosity to life and they received permission to dig deeper.

This quickly led to the discovery of a site named BBQ East which was just 50 feet away from other findings which triggered the opening of an area called BBQ West. These terms originated from the fact that the first bones found in each spot were RIBS. Get it ? Barbecue West and Barbecue East? So much for geo-culinary humor.

In the western site were remains of a Hadrasaur -- a member of the 'duck-billed' group. Just a few bone lengths away in the eastern digs was the discovery of the summer: a T-Rex. It was the latter that would precipitate events that Doc could never imagine.

With the unearthing of its 52" (132 cm) pubis (one of three parts of the hip bone) Doc smiled because he knew it was four inches (10 cm) longer than that of the largest TRex pubis on record. However, to gather a Blue Ribbon for dinosaur size the femur and/or skull had to be found. We dug harder and longer for such treasures. One day we left the house at 7 A.M.. for the 15 mile trip to the site and returned home at 8 P.M. No one complained. This was the day we discovered the skull.

And the sad news is that this occurred on Wednesday, August 8th, 1997 - the last day of the dig. On Thursday we closed the site; Friday was devoted to cleaning up the house and lab, and Saturday was departure day. The skull was enclosed in a large concretion (boulder) with the approximate dimensions: 6 ft x 3ft x 2ft. Though large, this skull inside did not match that of a TRex with a 52" pubis. It was apparent that we had several TRexs in the pit. There have been about two dozen TRex discoveries in the world and during several weeks in the summer of 1997 we discovered parts of three more - a 13% increase in the TRex roster. Our skull was painted with hardener, a transparent glue and acetone solution; wrapped in plastic and buried for excavation in 1998.

There was a pall in the morning air as a front-end loader took 20 minutes to piled five feet of soil over BBQ East and West, covering relics that took three Earthwatch teams six weeks to uncover with thousands of shovels full of soil. Taps should have been played.

Rustlers and Intrigue

So a caravan of cars, planes, trains, trucks and trailers pulled out of Montana to deliver the last group of 16 researchers to their homes in Georgia; Massachusetts; Colorado; New Jersey; Illinois; Washington; Virginia; Pennsylvania; California; Indiana, and two blokes over the pond in England. Our hadrosaur and TRex were asleep in the nearby hills and it would be another nine months before a gentle massage from more shovels would awaken the beasts. In theory.

Despite the heart pounding summer discoveries we were sworn not to reveal anything but superficial banter. The size of the TRex was still in question as was the possibility that we had discovered a brand new dinosaur. This news would hamper the security of the site and drive land prices for further exploration off the chart. The secret must wait for the '98 dig teams to study. We didn't know that the real excitement lay ahead and an unbelievable adrenaline rush would occur 33 days later.

Fred Walton, the local rancher left in charge to attend to the house and watch over the bone site for possible thieves, turned vandal himself on September 13th. Using a back hoe, he broke into the Mesozoic cemetery to retrieve the jaw and sell it on the black market. For 65 million years the bones lay intact and using hydraulic technology he broke it in a blink.

Doc has cultivated many rancher friends through the years and no sooner did Fred's tractor chug up the steep grade to the site than motion detectors (well, binoculars) detected its presence and someone was on the phone informing Doc of the unexpected developments.

Ostensibly I went to Notre Dame in September 1997 to consult with Doc about the summer dig and plan for our China excursion in December-January, but in reality my motives were to accompany my son, a recent ND Law School graduate, to see the first Irish football game in their new stadium (ND 17-Georgia Tech 9). It was exactly a week before the Walton incursion, and Doc remarked that he had received word that Fred was giving tours of our bone lab and in general was up to no good. But bone theft goes beyond 'no good; it's a felony. FBI officers were immediately dispatched to the scene because the dinosaur rustlers were on federal land. An emergency salvage operation team composed of Notre Dame students and Earthwatch volunteers was given a three week window to reopen the site, repair the bones, and excavate all the further relics they could.

What was "a secret" in August was now headline news in -- The New York Times; Newsweek; Earthwatch catalog; with crews from NBC; CBS; CNN; ABC and PBS filming the resuscitation efforts of bone seekers. And that is where the story momentarily ends.


It is now August 1998 and in a few hours I will be back in Fort Peck with shovel in hand. Somewhere under my feet will be bones waiting to stretch into the sunlight for the first time in 65 million years. Stay tuned.

(Web Page w/fotos of ft. peck/china trips: www.eiu.edu/~scienced)