By TYLER TUFTS/Special to the Express
It’s another summer and another dinosaur dig for me. I once again went to Montana to dig for dinosaur bones with the Judith River Dinosaur Institute (JRDI). After two years of digging and volunteering for PaleoAdventures in South Dakota in the heart of T-rex country, Nate Murphy (a commercial paleontologist and founder of the JRDI) found another skeleton of a new large sauropod (a “long-neck” dinosaur) nick named “Big Monty” from the late Jurassic about 150 million years ago in the lower levels of a famous North American rock formation called the Morrison Formation. After hearing about this, I had to venture back to Montana to the very same private cattle ranch where I went on my very first dinosaur dig seven years ago.
These bones are huge! The neck (cervical), torso (dorsal) and tail vertebrae ranged up to three to five feet tall. Some of the ribs are about six feet long (perhaps even longer if more are to be found). Nate Murphy estimates that Big Monty was a whopping 120 feet long!
At first, we thought Big Monty maybe the next specimen of a sauropod species called Haplocanthosaurus (hap-lo-canth-o-saurus). Only five haplocanthosaurus specimens have been found in the Morrison Formation and their bodies measured up to 49 feet long and weighed about 14 US tons, which is small for a late Jurassic sauropod. We all thought Big Monty would break the record for haplocanthosaurus size, but later in the week we discovered that this dinosaur may be a whole new species!
At the site, we uncovered a large bone which we thought it was one of humerus bones for the front leg of the animal. But after Nate did some more digging around the bone and found more of it, it turned out to be a hip bone called the pubis. This five-foot long pubis has a much different shape from a haplocanthosaurus pubis and other Morrison Formation sauropods as far as we know. Judging by the shape of the bones, Big Monty is probably a “basal” sauropod. This means this Sauropod might be an ancestor to some sauropods that came later in the upper Morrison Formation like Camarasaurus, and Brachiosaurus (which was present in the classic film ‘Jurassic Park’).
In the week before I went to the dig site, Nate’s team found a whole tooth with the root still attached, hinting that the skull maybe nearby. When I went up there someone found part of a tooth socket and a potential skull fragment.
Sauropod skulls are relatively small and thin compared to their large bodies, which makes them hard to find. Especially if the skeleton does not have an articulated neck. It even becomes harder/ impossible to find the skull if it breaks and the pieces get scattered all over the place and beyond before it gets buried. That might be the case with Big Monty’s skull. This can be caused by many factors, like a large animal (like a sauropods) stepping on it and kicking it away, a strong river current carrying the pieces away, or carnivores scavenging the site for food (even though there are no signs of scavenging at this site. At least not yet). We may never see the face of Big Monty, but at least we got some skull fragments and a tooth.
After spending a week in the field digging the Big Monty skeleton and surviving a huge hailstorm at camp. I arrived back in Billings, Montana, and got a chance to go see Nate’s new lab. Here I got to visit and see the first dinosaur I witnessed being discovered on my first dinosaur dig on the same ranch seven years ago. This dinosaur is also a type sauropod called a camarasaur which we nicknamed Ava, named after the ranch owner’s granddaughter who was born on the same day we discovered this skeleton.
Ava is most likely the second specimen of a new unidentified camarasaur that was found on the ranch back in 2005. Nate Murphy gave it the unofficial name Montanasaurus wildini. It was found with a neatly preserved skull that looked quite different from a camarasaurus skull. This could be a new genus and species of camarasaur, but paleontologists are still debating over it. Only time will tell.
It was nice to see to Ava again, but there was something else that I was happy to see. As I walked around the lab I noticed a small wooden box, but this was no ordinary box. It was an old apricot box from the late 1960s and it said, “Tufts Ranch, Winters California” on it! I was shocked! My old family business name found its way into paleontology!
Nate received this box when he was picking up some partial fossil bones from a family in Nebraska that he is trying to sell for them. The partial fossil bones came from a relative of the horse called a Titanothere (yet strangely, they looked more like rhinos with their weird horns and heavy bodies). A Titanothere or Brontothere as they’re usually called, were large mammals that lived in a time after the dinosaurs went extinct. They lived in the Eocene epoch about 37 million years ago which is now the rock formation known as the White River Formation.
Nate did offer to give back the box to me to take back home, but I wanted him to keep it. Tufts Ranch had a good run, but the fruit packing days are sadly over, and there was no greater purpose for it back home. I wanted to give that box a purpose again, especially in the field of paleontology. I could not be prouder.
I will be making a video about this adventure on my YouTube channel “PaleoTufts.” This video will take some time to edit, but at least viewers may enjoy watching my past adventures with JRDI in Montana and PaleoAdventures in South Dakota (viewers may like and subscribe). Big Monty is a new amazing sauropod, and it will teach us something new about the world of the dinosaurs. Someday Big Monty and Nate Murphy’s other dinosaur skeletons will be sold to museums all over the world, and I will come visit them and proudly say, “I helped with that.”