September 18, 2008

North Dakota Researchers Search For First Full Croc Skeleton

Researchers in western North Dakota have set out to make an unprecedented find: a complete skeleton of an ancient crocodile. 

"In all the years we've been working out there, we've never found a complete crocodile skeleton," said state paleontologist John Hoganson, of the North Dakota Geological Survey. "It's one of the things we'd like to find, for sure."

North Dakota was home to many crocodiles about 60 million years ago. A large collection of various bones and teeth belonging to crocodiles has been discovered through the years, but the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck has never possessed a complete croc skeleton.

Researchers from the Science Museum of Minnesota discovered the site west of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

"Any time you go into a spot like that ... we're always hopeful that we can find a totally articulated skeleton," said Larry Melvin, a minerals program manager for the Forest Service's Dakota Prairie Grasslands office.

This summer, participants in a public fossil dig on U.S. Forest Service land in southwestern North Dakota found bones and a skull, Hoganson said. They also found preserved crocodile tracks.

"You can actually see the footprints of this crocodile walking across what would have been a silty mud surface," he said.

Ancient crocodiles would have been at the top of the food chain 60 million years ago, after the demise of the dinosaur, he said.

Geological Survey paleontologist Jeff Person said crocodile fossils are common, but "finding a complete skeleton would be a little more rare anywhere in the world."

This summer was the first time Geological Survey officials worked at the site, Hoganson said. The Geological Survey, the Forest Service and the Marmarth Research Foundation sponsored the public dig.

"There are so many fossil bones there - it's a site we'll return to for several years," Hoganson said. "We're hoping we'll find a complete crocodile skeleton at some point. We're kind of pumped about this."


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