CANTON, N.Y. - The fossilized remains of a champsosaurus, a crocodile-like animal that lived in swamps and ponds 65 million years ago, and a petrified tree stump that could only have existed in subtropical climates and swampy areas are among the discoveries made in North Dakota this summer by a group of St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) undergraduates.
Their discoveries came as a result of a summer geology course they are taking called "Almost Digging Dinosaurs." Chapin Professor of Geology Mark Erickson is teaching the course, working with officials from the North Dakota Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service.
Erickson, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota in 1971, has been bringing students to the area ever since. He, the students and John Hoganson, a paleontologist for the North Dakota Geological Survey, found the pelvis and back legs of a champsosaurus while working at a plant fossil site near Linton, ND. The find marks the first time that fossils of this type have appeared east of the Missouri River. "That's also the farthest east that a champsosaurus has ever been found, at least in the mid-continent area," said Hoganson. "We have found remains of champsosaurus in North Dakota before, in several different places, but all west of this site." He added that the discovery was made while the group was searching for leaf fossils.
Erickson discovered the plant fossil site years ago, in a roadside ditch.
"We had real good luck there," Hoganson said. "We found nearly 50 different kinds of plants."
The finds include fronds from palm trees and at least one plant that may be new to science, he said. The group collected nearly 2,000 specimens at the Linton site recently, Hoganson said. The fossils are on state land, and they will become part of the state collection at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck, he said.
Also discovered by the group was petrified tree stump, which Hoganson said could be from a bald cypress tree, a type that only existed in subtropical climates and swampy areas. Workers initially considered removing the stump, but changed their minds when they decided it might be from the same swamp where the crocodiles would have lived about 60 million years ago. So far, 6 feet in height and about 6 feet of the base of the petrified stump have been exposed with the help of a backhoe operator. "And we're still not down to the base of it," Hoganson said. "It's a huge tree."
Erickson said previous digs turned up turtles and the remains of a mosasaur, a large prehistoric lizard that now is on display in the state Heritage Center.
"I think it's very important to preserve these, not only for scientific knowledge but also for public display," Erickson said.
A champsosaurus found in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is on display in the park visitors center in Medora, ND. The remains of two champsosauruses found on national grasslands in the Belfield, ND, area are also on display, one in the Heritage Center and another at U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Washington, Hoganson said.
A description of the course the students are taking from Erickson may be found at: http://web.stlawu.edu/summerterm/special%20program%20north%20dakota.htm
Materials provided by St. Lawrence University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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