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Big Squid Hunt: What’s in Walhalla?

July 9, 2012

Perhaps the better questions are: where the heck is Walhalla? and why are Trish and Dan there? Walhalla is located just about as far north and east as you can go in North Dakota without accidentally going to Canada or Minnesota. We’re here because a few years ago the North Dakota Geological Survey found a six foot long pen of a Cretaceous squid (the only one of Tusoteuthis ever found in North Dakota) in the Pembina Gorge, just outside of Walhalla. They have graciously allowed Dan and me to join them on this year’s dig.

Photo of the fossil dig site, Pembina Gorge

Fossil dig site in the Pembina Gorge, just outside of Walhalla, North Dakota. Outcrop of the Pembina Member of the Pierre Shale.

No one ever said we’d actually find another fossil squid pen or that the search would be easy or productive and so far it’s been neither, but it has been entertaining. After a day’s flight to Bozeman, Montana to meet my cohort in tentacular endeavors, Dan Lawver and an evening of admiring the snow and a llonely llooking llama. We were ready to hit the road.

Photo of snow in the mountains, Bozeman, Montana

Snow in the mountains, Bozeman, Montana

Two days of driving, which included a stop to get centered and a lengthy conversation about whether, at the Canadian border, you had to declare any botfly larvae or tapeworms your body is hosting? We concluded that when you see two long trains approaching from different directions, don’t panic … they are not a math problem waiting to happen.  No one ever said paleontologists were convivial conversationalists and as you might surmise, we finally arrived in Walhalla road weary and a bit brain dead.

picture of a llama

Llonely llooking llama, Bozeman, Montana

Time to get Kraken! … or not.

Photo of the marker at the geographical center of North America

Trish stops to get centered at the geographical center of North America, Rugby, North Dakota

The first day started less than auspiciously when the bus we were traveling to the dig site in ran out of gas … oops! No one ever said taking a bus to hunt for fossil squid was a good idea. But we did get there and were heartened to see they had already found a mosasaur skeleton … well kind of … they’d found some vertebrae, ribs, and by the end of the day a partial flipper. Mosasaurs are big toothy reptiles that lived during the Cretaceous and ate the squid we are looking for. Our hopes were high as we started to remove the overlying layers (overburden) to get down to the layers where the fossils are found. Unfortunately after an entire day of removing overburden with trowels it became obvious that was needed was more power.

Picture of Mosasaur bones

Mosasaur bones found at the dig site.

The next morning we arrived to find a bobcat and a frontend loader taking the hill. Woo hoo! We’ll be at the fossil layer in no time … or not. No one ever said just because you’ve called in the heavy equipment you will actually find fossils. Once they were done we spent a half day digging with our trusty trowels only to find…well…nothing. But all is well that ends well. We got to get an up-close and personal look at the Pembina Shale Member of the Pierre Formation. We met some great people. Dan got to help a bit with the overburden on the mosasaur. We left them happily mapping mosasaur bones and with a promise from the North Dakota Geological Survey that, for my big squid project, they will send pieces of their previous squid to me in the mail. We all know how much I like getting squid pens in the mail.

Photo of heavy equipment

Heavy equipment used at the dig site

Tomorrow, we head towards Canada to see if the fossil squid have migrated for the summer.

Photo of Dan and Jeff removing overburden

Dan helps out with the overburden.

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