Thanks to a chance encounter in Baker, the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka will soon be the proud owner of a powerful microscope that will be used in a citizen project to study ancient insects and plants preserved in amber.
Museum Director Sabre Moore ordered the microscope on Wednesday and expects to have it on-site in time for the museum’s flagship event—the Annual Dino Shindig on the last weekend of July. Moore bought the research tool after receiving a $4,300 check from the Red Ants Pants Foundation.
The museum, the first county museum in Montana and the first to display dinosaur fossils, received the largest of the 13 grants the foundation awarded this year. The foundation grants, which were announced publicly on Thursday, are supported by ticket sales and donations from the Red Ants Pants Music Festival, held every summer in a giant cow pasture outside of White Sulphur Springs.
Moore said the chain of events that led to the grant award began in April, when Llane Carroll, chairman of the museum board, attended a Soil-to-Skillet program in Baker, at which Sarah Calhoun was the keynote speaker.
Calhoun, the founder of the women’s clothing company Red Ants Pants, said Carroll introduced himself after her presentation and they talked about the Carter County Museum, and about how important such institutions were to small towns like Ekalaka. She, in turn, told Carroll about the Red Ants Pants Foundation grants, which support women’s leadership, rural communities and working family farms and ranches.
Carroll passed the information along to Moore, and told her that Calhoun would be spending the night at Medicine Rocks State Park, 10 miles north of Ekalaka. Calhoun, who camped at the state park with her dog, was having breakfast the next morning at the Wagon Wheel Cafe in Ekalaka when Moore called.
They walked over to the museum, where Moore gave Calhoun a personal tour of the museum and told her about their Hell Creek Amber Citizen Science Project.
(Which we’ll talk about in a moment. We can’t resist mentioning that while Calhoun was at the Wagon Wheel, where she met everyone in the place in short order, a “sweet old lady” walked up and asked if it was true that she lived in White Sulphur Springs. When Calhoun said she did, the woman asked if she was single. Yes, she was. “Well, my nephew just moved to town,” the woman told her. “He’s a doctor. Give him a call.”)
The citizen science project involves the collection of amber from Carter County’s Hell Creek formation by members of the museum’s field crews and people who go out on expeditions during the Dino Shindig. The amber, or fossilized tree resin, sometimes contains insects and plant material that date back 60 to 75 million years, when T.rex, Triceratops and other dinosaurs lived.
The project gives regular people the opportunity to discover new species of beetles, wasps, flies and ants, and to contribute to the understanding of the environment in the Late Cretaceous period.
Until now, all amber specimens have been shipped for study to the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where Ekalaka native Nathan Carroll, Llane and Sharon Carroll’s son, is working on his Ph.D. in paleontology. Thanks to the Red Ants grant, the amber will now stay in Ekalaka for study.
“We will have a powerful microscope and TV monitor so you can actually see what people are looking at,” Moore said.
The new microscope, specifically a Scienscope SSZ-II Stereo Zoom Trinocular Microscope, will also come with a tablet so that each specimen can be annotated and catalogued while being studied.
Calhoun, who had never been to Ekalaka before, said she was impressed with the town and the Carter County Museum, and with the “notoriety of the attendees” who have given presentations at previous shindigs. Last year, one of the speakers was Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Moore said Calhoun was also impressed “with the amount of female leadership that we have at this museum.” With the exception of Nathan Carroll, who is the museum’s adjunct curator, all the museum’s part- and full-time staff are female, including Hillary McLean, paleontology lab manager, an intern position, and Jennifer Hall, marketing and communications coordinator and taxidermist.
Moore had just two days to put together and submit an application for a grant from the Red Ants Pants Foundation, but she did it, and a few months later she found out it was successful.
Moore, whose family ranches near Douglas, Wyo., started at the museum as a summer intern and was hired as the new director last December, after earning a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University and a master’s certificate in nonprofit management.
“I use my degree every day, which is unusual,” she said.
Moore will also be attending the annual conference of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in August in Calgary, Alberta, where she will give a presentation on the Mobile MAIA Science Lab, which brings a traveling laboratory to schools throughout the state, with an emphasis on rural schools in southeastern Montana. The Carter County Museum developed the project in cooperation with the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University and Carter County High School.
Meanwhile, along with the grant from the Red Ants Pants Foundation, Moore was given two tickets to the Red Ants Pants Music Festival. Alas, like the festival, the Dino Shindig is always on the last weekend in July. Moore said they’ve offered the tickets to museum board members, in case they have friends or family who can get away that weekend.
Calhoun was disappointed, too, because she’d like to check out the Dino Shindig.
“It’s just such a shame,” she said. “Summer in Montana is too short.”