Dinosaur researcher hunts for ancient amber near Ekalaka

EKALAKA — In muddy badlands off Powderville Road southwest of Ekalaka, Nathan Carroll is on the hunt for amber.

Don’t picture large chunks of bright, translucent amber. Most of what he finds is very small, not much bigger than a ladybug, and they are almost the color of a blood orange, nearly opaque. He and some volunteers have been filling little plastic jars with pieces of amber all summer, and he’s not even sure what he’s got yet.

The Ph.D. student in paleontology won’t know until he returns to the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, for fall semester and uses X-rays and CT scans to peek inside the amber. He’s hoping to find ancient creatures preserved in the amber—insects, or fragments of insects.

That would be significant, probably important enough to loosen up grants that would finance additional research. But what he really hopes to find—however small his chances—are bird feathers. For his doctorate he is tracing the evolution of feathers within lineages of extinct birds, and he would love to do his research in the fossil-rich Hell Creek Formation around Ekalaka, where he grew up on a ranch.

It was big news in 2011 when researchers in Alberta, Canada, found 70-million-year-old feathers in amber, which gave evidence of a variety of shapes and colors on feathers worn by birds and nonavian dinosaurs.

Amber has been a rich source of fossils, but hardly anyone has looked for it in the Hell Creek Formation, the layer of sediment that has yielded such spectacular dinosaur finds around Ekalaka and Jordan, among other Montana locales. As far as he knows, Carroll said, only one paper has been published about amber from the Hell Creek Formation, which dates from the end of the dinosaur era 65 million years ago.

One reason for that neglect is that Hell Creek amber isn’t gem quality and it’s not easily polished, and it is also quite fragile.

“And part of the problem in the Hell Creek is that there’s so much out there,” Carroll said. “It’s easy to be distracted.”

Shortly after saying that, he pointed to the ground, laughed and said, “Bone. Bone. Bone. Bone. Bone.”

He wasn’t kidding and he wasn’t exaggerating. It’s hard to walk in any direction for more than a minute or two and not see numerous dinosaur bone fragments. In the next 15 minutes, Carroll found two sites where poachers recently prospected for fossils on Bureau of Land Management property, leaving behind obvious excavations, plaster droppings and tinfoil scraps.

Carroll, who has permission to do initial survey work on all BLM land in Carter and Fallon counties, took photographs and entered GPS coordinates so he could report the poaching sites to the BLM.

Carroll, who is 27, has already logged years of experience as a field worker, student and researcher in the field of paleontology. Eleven years ago, his father, Lane, a rancher and part-time banker in Ekalaka, watched out his bank window as a team of paleontologists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County arrived across the street at the Carter County Museum.

He went over and introduced himself, then asked if his son, as a 16th-birthday present, could join them on their expedition. They said yes, and Carroll spent the rest of that summer and the next digging with paleontologists in the morning and working on the ranch in the afternoon.

The leader of the first expedition was Luis Chiappe, then curator of the Dinosaur Institute at the L.A. County museum. He is now Carroll’s co-advisor at USC, where Chiappe is an associate professor of paleontology.

Carroll also came to the attention of Montana’s premier paleontologist, Jack Horner, who teaches at Montana State University and is curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. Horner drove out to Ekalaka after hearing about Carroll’s high school science project, a fairly sophisticated attempt to determine the bite force and feeding habits of the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Carroll was cutting hay on some leased land 30 miles south of the family ranch when Horner drove up.

“This guy gets out and I said, ‘Man, that guy looks a lot like Jack Horner.’ And it was.”

They had lunch in Ekalaka and Carroll ended up working with Horner on a nearby T. rex dig. He was already planning to attend MSU for his undergraduate work—“I’m a fourth-generation Bobcat anyway”—but Horner’s interest, he said, “just made it that much easier.”

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Bozeman, doing research on flying reptiles known as pterosaurs, and started his doctoral work at USC last fall.

All through high school and college, he stayed closely involved with the Carter County Museum, preparing fossils, helping with exhibits, organizing collections and doing more work in the field. In 2013, he and fellow students from MSU—most of whom he met while drawing cartoons and writing a humor column for the college’s student newspaper, the Exponent—organized a project that brought six students to Ekalaka for the summer.

They worked on various projects at the museum and put on the first Dino Shindig, a summer weekend of events, field trips, dancing and a symposium featuring an impressive roster of paleontologists from leading universities and museums, all of them familiar with Ekalaka and its environs.

The Dino Shindig continued this summer, as did the Student Community Outreach Project started by Carroll and his friends, which has also expanded to include work in other Montana towns. Just last week, two former MSU students who first worked at the museum in 2013 went before the museum’s board of directors with Carroll to recommend a serious start to long-discussed plans to more than double the size of the museum.

At their urging, the board voted to move ahead with the expansion, with plans to finish it within five years.

Much of the presentation was made by Sabre Moore, a native of Douglas, Wyo., who helped overhaul and modernize the museum’s Native American collections and exhibits in 2013. She even wrote and self-published a 70-page book, “Carter County Museum: American Indian Collections,” with most of the sale proceeds going to the museum.

She is now pursuing a dual degree in museum studies/nonprofit management at Johns Hopkins University and drew on her adviser’s expertise to present the board with a blueprint for a capital campaign and long-term planning.

“My work here has really defined my career path,” Moore said.

The other MSU graduate is Kirsten Johnson, who has a film degree and has been helping the museum with marketing. She filmed an advertisement for the recent Dino Shindig and is now working on a series of Web videos highlighting aspects of the Carter County Museum.

It all adds up to an unusual degree of enthusiasm and expertise for a museum in a town the size of Ekalaka, with a population of about 350.

“Without Nate getting involved here, this museum would probably just fade away,” said director Jef Jourdan.

Meanwhile, Carroll is still pinning his hopes on those tiny globules of amber, which he looks for near coal seams on the slopes of rippled mounds of gray mud. He and his helpers have been collecting at 24 “amber localities” around Carter County this summer.

The research is important because so little is known about Hell Creek insects and plants, Carroll said. When the Hell Creek Formation was deposited between 66 million and 64.5 million years ago, he said, the landscape resembled a larger version of the Mississippi River delta, with huge, swift-flowing rivers that could quickly bury and preserve large dinosaurs.

But the same factors that entombed staggering quantities of large dinosaurs tended to smash and pulverize smaller, more delicate things, like insects and plants. That’s why amber could, finally, tell paleontologists something about the other life forms that flourished just before the dinosaurs went extinct.

“Whatever the amber captures is going to be more important than anything we’ve seen before,” Carroll says. “If I find an insect, it’s going to be a new species.”

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