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Big bones on campus

October 1, 2011
By Karin Elton , Marshall Independent

Jake Beckstrom's best friend is 35 million years old. Or it will seem to be that close of a relationship after Beckstrom and others get through carefully brushing the sediment off the bones of a mammal that was donated to Southwest Minnesota State University.

"It will be about 100 hours of labor from start to finish," said Beckstrom, an SMSU senior from Watertown.

Beckstrom will use the fossil as part of his senior capstone course. Along with writing a paper, he will give a presentation Nov. 30 at an undergraduate research conference at SMSU.

Article Photos

Photo by Karin Elton

Southwest Minnesota State University senior Jake Beckstrom uses a wire brush to scrape the sediment off the oreodont skull.

When it came time to discuss what Beckstrom would work on as part of his capstone studies, his professors told him what they had in storage and mentioned a 35-million year old fossil - and he jumped on it, he said.

Beckstrom said he has wanted to be "a paleontologist - a dinosaur bone digger-upper" - since he was 6 years old. It was the Steven Spielberg dinosaur movie that sparked his interest, he said.

"'Jurassic Park' got me," he said.

He has changed his goals since then slightly - after receiving his undergraduate degree at SMSU in environmental science, he plans on attending Michigan State University for graduate studies - getting dual master's degrees in fisheries and wildlife and in law and be an environmental lawyer.

But in the meantime, Beckstrom is spending quite a bit of time with a wire brush in his hand, whisking off years of compacted sediment.

The fossil is an oreodont - an animal that was common in the Badlands, which extend to Wyoming, which is where this particular oreodont hails from.

Oreodont means "mountain teeth" - the cusps of the teeth are peaked like mountains, Beckstrom said.

The teeth in front are curved like a saber tooth tiger's even though the oreodont was a plant-eater only.

"It could be for defense or display," said Emily Deaver, an environmental science professor at SMSU, who is helping Beckstrom on his project. She has been working on the shoulders, front legs and backbone piece.

Tom Dilley, an SMSU environmental science professor, said they have 30 percent to 40 percent of the animal and that percentage is comprised of the good stuff.

"It has its skull, legs, toes, tail, hip - at least one piece of all the important bones," he said.

An oreodont is "the size of a sheep or a pig," said Dilley. "It was a common mammal in that area. We have nothing like them alive today. There were many types of oreodonts, but this one was the most common."

The area was like an "African savannah," 35 million years ago, Beckstrom said. "It was lush, with tons of different animals."

The fossil was found on a private ranch near Lusk, Wyo., in the White River Formation, the same rock formation as the Badlands (in South Dakota)," said Dilley.

Former SMSU student Don Wilmert introduced Dilley to Davey Jones of Marshall.

"Davey's been going to Wyoming for 30 years. He's a big fossil collector," said Dilley. "He gave us this fossil, and others."

In addition, Jones gave the professors advice on how to prepare the fossil for display such as the best epoxy glue to use.

Some of the smaller bones were in pieces and they had to be assembled "like a puzzle," Deaver said, and glued.

The fossil was removed from its earthen home encased in the surrounding sediment. The SMSU professors and students used grinders and drills to chip off the larger sediment pieces.

Beckstrom and Deaver use wire brushes to remove the sediment from the bone, which is the really hard work, they said. They use smaller instruments - brushes, dental tools - now as they work closer to the bone.

"The bones are a little harder than the sediment," Dilley said.

Once the parts of the prehistoric animal are finished being prepared, cleaned, and assembled, the oreodont will be on display in the Natural History Museum at SMSU.



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