The Road to Hell Creek

–Christopher Dancy, 6th Grade Science Teacher
Boston, Massachusetts


My first blog post has been written and rewritten between the moments of my own children’s needs, teaching responsibilities, and during professional development workshops that are associated with the beginning of the school year.  I’ve never had difficulty writing, but during this particular task I’ve sat at my computer to write, only to delete and write again.  Somewhere deep down I know that my writer’s block has arisen because of my desire to give back to those who have given so much to me. Ultimately, I’ve chosen to share a story, the story which I thinks frames a larger conversation about my experiences at the Dig and the quality of the Dig Field School team.  It’s also the story that I tell people when they ask me to sum up my experiences in Northern Montana this summer.

Due to the cost of flying from Boston into Billings, I opted for a flight a day earlier.  The flight the day earlier with the added cost of the car rental was still cheaper than landing on the expected day of arrival to take the shuttle to the camp.  I never considered where I would stay that evening, but figured it would just work out. I took my time getting to Jordan, visiting National Park sites, and small towns before heading north.  Within a few hours of driving, the cities and the towns were behind me, radio stations faded, and other travelers on the roads became fewer until it was just me. Eventually, as cell service and Waze failed, I became aware of just how remote I had become.

As I was a day early, I showed up to the Dig Field School site at Hell Creek around dusk without any expectation of anyone else being there . To be honest, I was actually very confused when I arrived at the encampment.  There were people everywhere around two large safari tents surrounded by a tent city of individual tents which were  flanked by pickup trucks. I would learn later that the thirty or so people there were actually scientists, post grad and undergrad students.  I was welcomed in and invited to join everyone for dinner.

After dinner, a conversation by the fire developed around me- I was literally in the middle. The conversation was really between two people, Mark and Dave. I politely nodded when I received a look and asked a basic question or two as the conversation went on, but really I just listened. Mainly they spoke about triceratops and the thick dome of a Pachycephalosaurus.They left the next day as teachers started arriving. I didn’t really think about who these people were until I arrived back home to Boston.

This leads me into why this is the story that I tell everyone. My five year old daughter loves dinosaurs, and especially since I returned from my experience, fossils.I tried to find a documentary about fossil excavation while my other two kids were napping and I was cooking dinner. I ended up with Dino Hunt on Netflix- season 1, episode 1.

There on the tv was Dave. Or, as he was introduced, Dr. David Evans the youngest curator that the Royal Ontario Museum has ever had.  The 45 minute episode featured him- speaking and leading the cameras and his team through his own fossil excavation in Alberta. I looked up “Mark” too- Mark Goodwin is assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley. He has a book coming out about triceratops.

I turned to my daughter and said, “Jo, I had dinner with that guy last week.” For my five year old daughter, this experience with Netflix cemented my role as a hero.  She tells everyone, “My dad dug for dinosaurs this summer.  He knows the Dinosaur Hunter”.  I sat with her through the whole episode and we ended up ordering out for pizza that night.

However, this story still only represents my first 8 hours at the Dig Field School.  I could also write about excavating a prehistoric turtle shell and jacketing it in plaster with two other teachers, crawling on the hot desert floor looking for microfossils, or swinging a pickaxe as I searched for the productive horizon.  Each of these stories is amazing and is relevant, but a blog post should only be so long.

All in all, I’d say that I have about 25 years experience teaching science. I am a veteran middle-school science teacher in a small suburban district outside of Boston.  Prior to my employment in the public schools, I worked in several different educational roles in the Boston Museum of Science and a small local science center. However, prior to the adoption of NGSS, zero years of that time were spent teaching about dinosaurs, fossils, or geologic events during Earth’s history.  During this time, I have never been drawn to fossils or dinosaurs. During this time, I have never taken a class about geologic time, fossils or dinosaurs. The expectation to teach these subjects during the previous academic year was overwhelming so I looked outward for professional development.

As I’m sure that most of you can empathize, I’ve been conditioned over the years to greet Professional Development with evermore eye rolls and sighs.  Professional Development has increasingly become a top-down prescription for topics that a district/school administrator views as is important for those employed within the district. Professional development within the public schools feeds the needs of the district, but rarely the professional.

This program offered by Dig Field School is the exception to everything that I’ve come to know about Professional Development.  It was exactly what I was seeking. It quenched my curiosity. It fostered more curiosity. I learned through lecture. I learned through collaboration with other teachers.  I collected micro-fossils. I collected macro-fossils. I licked the radius of a Triceratops. I participated in data collection from a live paleontology site. I prospected. I excavated.  I identified. I laughed. I sweat. I worked hard. I loved everything. I found a passion for that one subject for which I had none. I found interests in new, related subjects.

While I could fill pages and pages with that which stood out for me, there are a few highlights which I really appreciated and continue to think about:

  • Each scientist’s  expertise and area of speciality is slightly different.  Every scientist is the leader in their field.


  • There is a great diversity amongst the team of scientists, not only in their field of knowledge.  Female and male scientists are equally represented. There is a racial diversity amongst the scientists on this team. There is a diversity of ages amongst the team members.  As a minority, this was one of my most important takeaways from this experience.


  • Each scientist is also a patient teacher.  In my experience, there are scientists and there are teachers.  Each of these two roles require a unique skill set that is specific, refined, and usually narrow.  I think that it’s rare to find an individual who is a scientist but also demonstrates the patience, ability to simplify difficult content (without making it incorrect), and transfer their passion to members outside of that specific field as a teacher does.  Each of these amazing scientists were able to do that. They were amazing teachers.

I think often about this past summer, and the fact that we were surrounded by current and future world renowned experts in myriad paleo fields that would just chill with teachers and share some beers and conversation after dinner.  Dr. Greg Wilson and his team have a great thing going, and I hope that they know how the caliber of this course and quality of this team are the rarest of finds amongst professional opportunities. I can’t say enough about the DIG field school. Simply put, It was one of the best educational experiences that I’ve ever had to date. It was hands down the best professional experience that I’ve ever had.

This team helped me discover my interest in a field that I had avoided for years, helped maintain my hero status to a five year old and a three year old, and were just generally awesome.  This program is the real deal.  It is a program taught by professionals for professionals. I would urge anyone and everyone to take it.

2018 DIG and Summer Fieldwork

We are excited to report that we’ll announce final acceptance decisions for the 2018 DIG Field School next week! Thank you to all who applied, and thank you for your patience in waiting to hear back on your status.

This year we received 94 applications for 35 open spots. We received applications from 24 different states—as well Canada, Algeria, and Turkey—and were extremely impressed by the quality of the applications and the diversity of teaching backgrounds and experiences. Unfortunately we can only accommodate a small portion of the applications we receive, so if you are not accepted please consider applying again!

The DIG is a part of a larger field research project that Dr. Greg Wilson leads every summer, and includes a dynamic group of researchers from a number of institutions. We are gearing up for a very busy summer, and will return to a number of macrofossil sites discovered last year (including some promising dinosaur specimens!), collect as much fossiliferous sediment as we possibly can, and continue a detailed geological survey of our research area. We look forward to sharing the results of our research and the field school in the near future!

Photo credits: Adam Smith, Brody Hovatter

Upcoming Events

Final Sorting Party

The final sorting party of the school year will take place Sunday, June 3 from 11a–2p at the Burke Museum. So far this year participants have made a number of exciting discoveries, including mammal teeth, Triceratops and T. rex teeth, and salamander and lizard vertebrae. Please RSVP to by May 31 to secure your spot. We hope to see you there!

Fossil Fridays

Come see fossil preparators at the Burke work on the spectacular Tufts-Love Rex at the upcoming Fossil Fridays event! This exceptionally well-preserved specimen represents one of only 15 mostly complete T. rex skulls ever discovered, and viewing it in person is an experience you don’t want to miss.  Visitors will have the opportunity to experience the specimen (and others!) up close, as well as speak with members of the Burke’s paleontology team. The event will take place Friday, May 25 from 12–4p.

2018 Undergraduate Research Symposium

The annual UW Undergraduate Research Symposium is happening Friday, May 18! Undergraduates from across the university we be presenting on a variety of exciting research projects from a number of disciplines. We are excited to announce that Wilson Lab undergraduate student Henry Fulghum will be presenting on his work with Dr. Greg Wilson and Wilson Lab graduate student Luke Weaver investigating the bone microstructure of small-bodied mammals. We hope to see you there!

Photo credits: Brody Hovatter, Adam Smith

Recent News

NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship Awards

We are delighted to announce that Drs. Stephanie Smith and Dave Grossnickle were both recently awarded prestigious NSF Postdoctoral Fellowships! This fellowship provides PhD graduates with two years of funding to spearhead cutting edge research in their respective fields. Stephanie will head to the Field Museum in Chicago to investigate the biomechanics of shrews, and Dave has joined our lab at the University of Washington to elucidate macroevolutionary patterns of mammalian jaws. Please join us in congratulating both Stephanie and Dave!

Drs. Stephanie Smith (above left) and Dave Grossnickle (above right)

Ghosts of Hell Creek

The Ghosts of Hell Creek performance was a huge success! This visual art piece combining theater and natural history wowed audiences and left everyone ready for more. You can read more about the project and its future directions here. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Recent Papers

Dr. Courtney Sprain, a former DIG instructor and current postdoc at the University of Liverpool, and collaborators (Drs. Paul Renne, William Clemens, and Greg Wilson) recently published a paper providing new radioisotopic ages and paleomagnetic data from the geological deposits of the Hell Creek area in northeastern Montana. This work provides crucial additions to our framework for understanding the timing of changes in the biota and in the environment surrounding the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event. You can access the full article here.

For all the multituberculate mammal enthusiasts out there, you can read about a recently discovered island dwelling and strangely dome-headed multituberculate from the Late Cretaceous of Romania. Here’s a link to the paper.

Photo credits: Stephanie Smith, Dave Grossnickle, Greg Wilson, Ari Rudenko

Dr. Brandon Peecook featured on ‘I Know Dino’ podcast

Dr. Brandon Peecook—an alumnus of the University of Washington paleo program, DIG instructor, and current postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago—was recently a featured guest on the podcast I Know Dino, which covers the latest news and research in paleontology. In the episode Brandon talks about some of the current research projects he’s involved with, his experiences working in the field, his involvement with public outreach, as well as a number of interesting topics. You can listen to the podcast on their website or various streaming platforms.



Upcoming DIG and Burke Museum events

Are you or someone you know looking for ways to get involved and learn more about paleontology? There are a number of exciting events coming up in the next few months! Read on for more information.

Upcoming talk: Investigating the extinction of dinosaurs and rise of mammals in northeastern Montana
Date: March 13, 2018
Time: 7 PM

DIG Assistant Director Brody Hovatter will be giving a talk on the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event, the DIG Field School, and citizen science at the Marysville Rock & Gem Club on Tuesday, March 13. We hope to see you there!

T. rex LIVE
Date: Now through June 10, 2018
Time: Normal Burke Museum hours

Burke Museum paleontologists are working hard on preparing the Tufts-Love Rex, which was excavated in northeastern Montana over the last two years with the help of DIG Field School participants. This is a truly remarkable specimen and a must-see for anyone event remotely interested in fossils. More of the exquisitely preserved skull is uncovered every day in the T. rex LIVE exhibit. Make sure to visit before it closes on June 10!

Fossil Fridays
Dates: March 23, April 27, May 25, 2018
Time: 12–4 PM

On the fourth Friday of each month (through May) museum visitors can tour the Burke’s Testing, Testing: 123 fossil prep lab, and view specimens like the Tufts-Love rex up close and personal. This is an opportunity you truly do not want to miss. Read more about Fossil Fridays here.

I Dig Dinos
Dates: March 25, April 29, May 27, June 24
Time: 11 AM–2 PM

Do you know an aspiring paleontologist looking to interact with dinosaurs and other fossils? Bring them to one of the Burke’s I Dig Dinos events, which occur on select Sundays and feature real fossils, dig pits, and dino dress-up stations. Read here to learn more about these events.

Members’ Behind-the-Scenes Night
Date: April 4, 2018
Time: 5–8 PM

Burke Museum members have the opportunity to take a up close and personal tour of the Burke’s collections, and learn more about how museum scientists and staff will be transferring millions of specimens to the New Burke. This could be your last chance to view the old museum’s collections space, and your first chance to get a sneak peak of the new building! Read more about the event here.

Photo credits: Burke Museum

Ethiopia Fieldwork Expedition 2018

In February 2018 DIG Director Dr. Greg Wilson and Wilson Lab graduate student Alex Brannick journeyed to Ethiopia to partake in a geological and paleontological reconnaissance mission. See below for an exciting account of the trip by Alex!

Above: view from a backroad in northeastern Ethiopia

Although the primary research focus of the Wilson Lab is to understand how vertebrate, especially mammal, communities were affected by the K-Pg mass extinction event, Dr. Greg Wilson is also involved in research centered around understanding non-marine ecosystems of the early Mesozoic around the world. Greg has been a part of the Blue Nile Project—a project focused on the geology and vertebrate Mesozoic faunas of Ethiopia—since 2008 in collaboration with Dr. Mark Goodwin (University of California Museum of Paleontology), Dr. Randy Irmis (Natural History Museum of Utah and University of Utah), Dr. Balemwal Atnafu (Addis Ababa University), Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam (Oklahoma State University), and Mr. Tadesse Berhanu (Addis Ababa University and Oklahoma State University).

Above: camels meandering around the field area

The Mesozoic (ca. 252–66 million years ago [Ma]) non-marine vertebrate fossil record of Africa is critical to our understanding of how terrestrial ecosystems responded to the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea. This interval also coincides with the early diversification of many important vertebrate clades, including mammals, dinosaurs, lissamphibians, and squamates. Although the evolution of these clades occurred on a global scale, the fossil record in Africa and in most of what are now the southern continents (Gondwana) is not well known in comparison to the fossil record of what are now known as the northern continents (Laurasia). Questions regarding African endemism of vertebrate clades, dispersal routes, and biotic interchange between Gondwana and Laurasia thus remain open due to the lack of knowledge surrounding the Gondwanan fossil record.

Africa’s Mesozoic fossil record, in particular, is understudied, undersampled, and spotty. Much of our current knowledge of the Mesozoic fossil record of Africa is from the southern part of the continent, including Tanzania, Morocco, and South Africa. The goal of the Blue Nile Project is to broaden that geographic sampling and improve our knowledge of the Mesozoic fossil record in Africa by sampling fossiliferous sediments in Ethiopia.

Above: the crew meeting with local geologists

In mid-February, Greg and I traveled to Ethiopia to meet up with Mark, Randy, and Tadesse and execute paleontological reconnaissance. The team stayed in the city of Mekele (in the northern province of Tigray), and from there we traveled each day out of the city to explore the Jurassic sediments of the Agula Formation. For the first day of fieldwork, we re-visited an area where the other team members had found fossils during a past visit (this was my first time to Ethiopia!). A few fish scales and other small bone fragments were located and noted. Unfortunately, I was sick for the second day of fieldwork and not able to participate, but the other team members traveled to another location with Agula exposures. No fossils were found, but they were able to take stratigraphic sections and study the geology of the area.

Above: Greg and Randy surveying the area with the help of some locals

On the third day, we again traveled to a different area with Agula outcrops and found ourselves near a local village. For most of the day, everyone split up and prospected. Tadesse focused on the geology and was able to get a great idea of what the area was like—he found a sill (igneous rock intrusion) that was ~300 meters thick! Greg discovered a fish jaw and some other fish scales. Randy and Tadesse were also able to take rock samples for future palynology studies.

Towards the end of the day, I was looking for microfossils in one of the gullies and spotted some white rock encased in the stream bed. Upon closer inspection, the white rock seemed to have the shape of what looked like a rib. I noticed more white rock in the area, and thought it could have been bone. There was a large broad piece, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up (being that the team hadn’t found much in the area), and thought it could have just been some weird rock. I took some notes and left the site. In the next gully, I wound up meeting up with the other team members and shared some pictures that I had taken. Greg thought it was worth checking out, so I led him over to the site. He inspected the possible bones and got on his radio—“Hey Mark, Randy, and Tadesse. You all should come over and check this out. They are some bones over here that are clearly dinosaur.” Yes! Dinosaur bones! It was exciting to hear that I didn’t find some weird rock (albeit cool), and that it was actually a fossil. The other team members then came over and checked the site out. A burst of excitement and energy that ran through the team, and we decided to focus our efforts on quarrying, jacketing, and getting this dinosaur out of the rock and back to Addis Ababa.

Above: close-up view of the exposed dinosaur rib

The rest of our time in Mekele was spent quarrying and figuring out the logistics of getting the dinosaur bones out. Many of the kids of the nearby village stayed at the site with us each day and watched us work—they were curious about what we were doing and why we insisted on digging in this one particular spot. It was fun to get to know them! After further excavation, the team thought we had uncovered ribs and possibly elements of the pelvis of a Jurassic sauropod (long-necked dinosaur)! This specimen marks the first in-situ dinosaur bones found in Ethiopia!

Above: Alex poses with her sauropod discovery

Above: Greg, Randy, and Mark discussing how to excavate the site

Unfortunately, we hit some road blocks with the local governing authorities, and had to spend half of our time making sure we went through the proper avenues to obtain the proper permission to quarry the site. Because of this, and because the rock in which the fossil was encased was extremely hard and difficult to quarry without heavy equipment, we were not able to complete our excavation. We were able to put a plaster jacket on the exposed bones and buried the site for protection. Greg, Mark, and Randy plan to apply for further grant support to return to the site and finish the excavation of the sauropod bones.

Overall, it was an amazing trip with even better fossil finds!

Above: the crew celebrates post-fieldwork

Photo credits: Alex Brannick and Greg Wilson


Citizen science and the DIG Field School

As many of our friends and colleagues know, one of the primary research endeavors of the Wilson Lab is the Hell Creek Project, which is focused on understanding the biotic and abiotic patterns and processes surrounding the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event. An important aspect of this project is that it relies on mass quantities of vertebrate microfossils—mammal teeth, salamander vertebrae, and lizard jaws, just to name a few. These specimens are primarily obtained by sorting through bulk samples of sediment collected from fossil sites in our study area in northeastern Montana. Our lab currently has over 5,500 kg of unsorted sediment, and we collect more every year.

Above: students hunt for Hell Creek Project fossils in class

One of the primary ways we connect with teachers and students is by sending them samples of sediment from our lab. Teachers who have been through the DIG program can request sediment samples at any point in the school year; students then sort out microfossils from these samples and assign preliminary identifications. The student-collected specimens are then mailed back to our research team, where they become bona fide data points in the Hell Creek project. Not only do these students get an authentic, hands-on learning experience, they directly contribute to our understanding of the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs and rise of mammals.

Above: students point to a collection of fossils they identified

Although it’s barely March, the DIG has experienced a record-breaking year for student-based citizen science. To date, over 50 classrooms from 10 states have sorted through more than 50 kg of sediment and collected over 300 vertebrate microfossils. Stay tuned for updates on these numbers at the end of the year!

Above: students examine sediment for vertebrate microfossils

In addition to involving classrooms in our research, we host monthly fossil sorting parties at the Burke Museum. Click here to read more about these events and get a complete list of the dates!


2018 DIG Field School Dates and Application

Apply to the 2018 DIG

We’re excited to announce the 2018 DIG Field School dates! This year’s DIG will take place July 19–23 at the Hell Creek State Park near Jordan, Montana.

Interested teachers can fill out an application on our website. The application will remain open until March 30 at 11:59 pm PST.

Please share this post with anyone who may be interested in the program, and be sure to check out our blog, Facebook, and Twitter for additional updates!