Like many young kids, Harrison Duran grew up with a fascination for dinosaurs. His interest eventually led him to studying the prehistoric beasts at college. This, in turn, gave him the chance to participate in a paleontological dig at the Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota. During these works, the student was traipsing through the fossil-laden grounds when he noticed something poking out of the ground. This, as it happened, was a clue to a shocking discovery beneath the dirt.
Duran’s foray into the Hell Creek Formation wasn’t be the first time paleontologists had trekked out west for a dig. The rocks here formed during the Upper Cretaceous and Paleocene periods, making them between 56 and 100 million years old. But most interestingly of all, the place now contains the fossils of creatures that have long been extinct.
Duran had always dreamed of digging in such a part of the world. In fact, his passion for dinosaurs later set the wheels in motion for his monumental excavation. Through his interest, he met biology professor Michael Kjelland. Together, they formed a nonprofit called Fossil Excavators, which gave the young Duran the chance to dig with the pros.
And dig Duran did, having traveled with a group to the Hell Creek formation for a two-week excavation. But when the college student eventually struck prehistoric gold, the team couldn’t shout his discovery from the rooftops. They had to keep the incredible find under wraps, as some similar discoveries had been stolen in the past.
But Duran, Kjelland and their crew worked in complete secrecy, carefully excavating their stunning discovery. After an entire week of extraction works, they then immersed it in a memory foam mattress and brought it to a lab. Only then did they share their shocking find with the rest of the world.
For paleontologists, the Hell Creek Formation has long been a fruitful location for excavation. Tens of millions of years ago, dinosaurs roamed here, along with mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians that no longer exist. And, amazingly, many of their skeletons have been preserved within the area and its layers of prehistoric clay and stone.
These layers of sediment paint a picture of what the Hell Creek Formation once was. The area used to have a subtropical climate, which is an interesting thought when we consider its geographical position. It extends across Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana – far from the Equator, where you’d find a subtropical climate today.
Aside from its climate, the Hell Creek Formation also had a much different look in prehistoric times. It used to be part of a floodplain of the Western Interior Seaway. At that time, a massive body of water sliced North America in half – the Hell Creek formation once sat on the shores of that sea.
The former Hell Creek Formation landscape and climate seemed to house a slew of creatures. And then, about 66 million years ago, all of the planet’s non-avian dinosaurs died in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. In relatively recent years, paleontologists have trekked to Hell Creek and dug up the remnants of these incredible creatures.
One such person to do this was Barnum Brown. Beginning life in 1873, Brown shortly thereafter became deeply intrigued by fossils. As a kid, he collected a slew of fossil bits and pieces. Eventually, he turned his childhood interest into a job with a paleontologist named Samuel W. Williston. He studied under the expert and gained experience as a field worker, too.
Brown’s time with Williston prepared him for his next job, which just so happened to be his perfect one. The American Museum of Natural History – now a world-famous establishment – wanted to set itself apart from other institutions. They hoped to do so by gathering the finest collection of dinosaur fossils.
The American Museum of Natural History went on to hire Brown to serve as their fossil hunter. So, by 1902 he was earning his keep with the New York-based institution. And in that year, he made a stunning discovery at the Hell Creek formation. Brown’s dig yielded the first incomplete remains of none other than the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Six years on, Brown’s quest to uncover the best fossils around led him back to the Hell Creek Formation. Once again, the earth beneath him delivered. This time, his find was even more impressive – a skeleton of another Tyrannosaurus rex. This one, however, was in better shape than the last, and it even had an intact skull.
Brown’s fossil hunting took him from the Hell Creek Formation to far-flung locales around the world. He dug in sweltering Indian temperatures and amid lush Guatemalan jungles. But his two T. rex from Midwestern U.S. may be considered his most famous finds. One of them, in fact, still stands in the heart of the American Museum of Natural History.
More than a century later, some students would take their turn to dig into the Hell Creek Formation, just as Brown did. The Kansas University (K.U.) pupils came to a Montana-based portion of the formation in 2016. Here, they excavated a prehistoric pelvis of a dinosaur. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find much else – not yet, at least.
Two years later, the K.U. students trekked back to where they found the pelvis and sought to find more. Their efforts proved even more fruitful the second time around. At this point, they dug to discover a part of the dinosaur’s jaw and some teeth, as well as a portion of a skull. With that, they could determine what type of creature they had found.
All the remnants – fossils that apparently dated back about 66.5 million years – seemed to come from a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex. No more than five similarly aged T. Rex have emerged from the Hell Creek formation since Brown’s digging days. As such, the students’ find was spectacular, as they themselves later explained.
Kyle Atkins-Weltman – who helped to restore the Tyrannosaurus rex fossils when they returned to K.U. – explained how the students’ specimen would stand as the best find so far. As he put it to Live Science in 2018, “This is probably the most preserved and most complete. This is a one-in-100-million specimen.”
Of course, the discovery didn’t come without a discussion amongst some experts in the field. Namely, some wondered if the students had actually found a Tyrannosaurus rex, or if they had uncovered an entirely different species of dinosaur. The same had happened with a Hell Creek find before, after all.
In 1988 paleontologist Robert Bakker revealed that he’d made a mistake in classifying one of his own finds. Decades prior, he thought he’d found the skull of a young Tyrannosaurus rex. As it turned out, he had actually found the skull of a tiny, T. Rex-resembling creature which he called the Nanotyrannus.
But a year later, paleontologist Thomas Carr disputed even those findings, based on the skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex that had been found – where else – in the Hell Creek formation. Carr deduced that Bakker’s claim had been incorrect. Like the Hell Creek skull, his was just a juvenile T. Rex, Carr asserted.
Although finding any type of dinosaur would be exciting, the K.U. team held out hope that they had, indeed, recovered the skull of an actual juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex. David Burnham, who worked for K.U.’s Biodiversity Institute, said in a statement, “If it turns out to be Nanotyrannus, we’re okay with that. If it turns out to be the best small T. Rex in the world, we’re happy with that as well.”
For more answers, the K.U. team hoped that they could come back to the Hell Creek Formation to try and dig up more of the creature they’d found. If it was a Tyrannosaurus rex, then its skull would indicate a sizable skeleton had been left behind. The experts approximated that the dinosaur would have been about 17 feet in length.
Eventually, it was time for student Harrison Duran to take his turn at excavating Hell Creek. But his find, as it would turn out, was vastly different to the famous Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in the past. Knowing his history with dinosaurs, though, Duran would likely have been thrilled with just about any discovery he made.
As Duran explained to the University of California, Merced’s Newsroom, he had spent most of his life dreaming of discovering “the land before time.” This meant that he had long fantasized of digging for prehistoric bones. As he put it, “I’ve been obsessed with dinosaurs since I was a kid.”
This interest pushed Duran to enlist in a History of Dinosaurs course during his studies at U.C. Merced. The class fell in line with his major in biology, which came with focuses in ecology and evolutionary biology. But it had bigger implications – the dinosaur-centric course would connect Duran with a pair of important instructors.
Specifically, Ph.D. candidate Taran Rallings led Duran’s History of Dinosaurs lab section. It was Rallings who suggested the next steps in the student’s paleontological career. With Rallings’ guidance, Duran decided to enlist in an extra-curricular paleontology dig, which would take him far from the confines of his California classroom.
Of course, Duran’s dig at the Hell Creek Formation wasn’t by any means a solo venture. He worked there alongside Michael Kjelland, a biology professor at North Dakota’s Mayville State University. Kjelland had plenty of experience in excavation, too. And he and Duran had previously connected over their passion for prehistoric fauna.
In fact, Duran and Kjelland felt so passionately about dinosaurs that they formed their own non-profit. This, appropriately enough, is called Fossil Excavators. As the organization’s website states, “Good fossil finds, good stories, good company, and meeting interesting folks on the journey is part of what we hope to continue to accomplish.”
Duran and Kjelland did just that on their dig in the Hell Creek Formation’s North Dakota expanse in summer 2019. The professor had already made an excellent find in the same zone a year before, digging up a Triceratops skull. So this time around, he brought Duran to the same spot, expecting they’d find plant fossils on the second dig.
However, as Kjelland put it, “You never know what’s going to happen.” Indeed, what he and Duran would uncover wouldn’t be like most other paleontological finds. Instead of hiding beneath the ground, a piece of this one stuck out from the earth. It appeared to be a horn piercing through the dirt.
With that, Kjelland, Duran and the rest of their team meticulously dug around the horn. And, as it turned out, lightning can strike twice in the Hell Creek Formation. They discovered that the horn came attached to the skull of a second Triceratops which dated back about 65 million years.
For dinosaur-lover Duran, the find was “a pretty big deal.” He went on to say, “I can’t quite express my excitement in that moment when we uncovered the skull.” Soon enough, the Triceratops had a name. They decided to call her Alice, in honor of the landowner upon whose property they had dug her up.
Although Alice was certainly the centerpiece of Kjelland and Duran’s finds, she wasn’t the only fossil in their haul. They also dug up plant fossils, just as the professor had expected. And although these discoveries didn’t quite feel as exciting as the dinosaur’s skeletal remains, they still nonetheless had value.
Duran explained how plant fossils help paleontologists to paint an image of how a Triceratops like Alice would have lived. He said, “It is wonderful that we found fossilized wood and tree leaves right around, and even under, the skull. It gives us a more complete picture of the environment at the time.”
All of these discoveries would have been enough to make any dinosaur lover excited. Yet the Fossil Excavators couldn’t immediately share the news of their find. Instead, they spent a week pulling Alice from the ground with the gentlest touch. They slowly dug into the ground surrounding the Triceratops skull, stabilizing the fragile bones as they went.
Of course, Alice’s skull had slowly fractured and mineralized over time. So, the paleontologists sealed the bones with glue before administering accelerant to bond it all together. Then, a local cattle rancher aided the Fossil Excavators team in layering her in plaster and foil for the journey back to Kjelland’s laboratory.
For an added layer of protection, the Fossil Excavators team then placed the massive Triceratops skull in a memory foam mattress. Still, their best move to keep Alice safe? Keeping her in a secret hiding place. As Kjelland elaborated, “There have been people in the past who have stolen dinosaur bones.”
Fortunately for everyone involved in the find, Alice actually made it back to Kjelland’s lab. And she’ll stay here until the Fossil Excavators decide what to do with her. Firstly, though, Kjelland and Duran hope to make a cast of her skull, which can then be exhibited at U.C. Merced.
As for the original skull, Kjelland hoped to share Alice with as many people as possible. And this, perhaps, could imbue them with the same passion for paleontology that he and Duran share. Kjelland explained, “The goal is to use this find as an educational opportunity, not just reserve Alice in a private collection somewhere so only a handful of people can see her.”