Elk hunter stumbles upon ancient discovery that has scientists baffled
Paleontologists were shocked when this elk hunter stumbled upon a discovery that would reshape our understanding of life on Earth. Every now and then, an amateur paleontologist will find something, and rarely, a lucky few will make a find that’s truly invaluable in understanding life that roamed the Earth millions of years ago.
It may come as no surprise that when such a big discovery was made by someone outside of the paleontological community, they were all left baffled. But the question remains, why is this accidental discovery so important to us?
1. Just a normal day
David Bradt was just your run-of-the-mill elk hunter. On one cold November day, however, this was all about to change. While hunting in the Montana wilderness, he would end up finding something that would not only change his life, but the lives of those who would come to study it.
The day started out just like any other — he went into the local Helena, Montana, wilderness. He spent the better part of the day looking to no avail, so eventually he decided to go find himself a spring to wash his face. When he walked toward the stream, however, he saw something he didn’t expect. But just what was it that he accidentally discovered?
2. Spots something funny
Bradt had walked his way toward a creek to wash his face. When he did so, however, he saw something jutting from the ground. At first, he thought this might just be a piece of petrified wood. Either way, the object seemed interesting, so he walked closer. Upon further inspection, he realized that it was not, in fact, petrified wood.
After another couple moments rummaging through the dirt, he realized that this might be bone — and a lot of it. But what type of creature did this bone come from? Was it something common like a scavenged elk? No, he didn’t think so. It was something far more unfamiliar. And because of this, Bradt sought out his children.
3. Kellen and Garrison Bradt
Bradt’s children, Kellen and Garrison, were paleontology enthusiasts. They slept on dinosaur bedsheets and hung dinosaur posters on their walls. Ultimately, they were the only experts that their father, David, had to consult. Well, not really. But they were included in the excavation that would soon follow.
What they did next is what any novice digger would do. First, they diverted the creek that was running water over the mysterious bones. Then, they used their tiny hands to help remove rocks and dirt from the surrounding area. The point was this: to remove as much debris as possible to ensure a clean digging site.
4. Kept a secret
The staff at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, where the bones were found, kept the location where Bradt and his children were digging a secret; they didn’t want the public to know about their potentially groundbreaking find. If the word got out, there might be trouble — the pieces of the fossil could be found and sold on the black market.
The precise location was kept a secret for about a month. During this period of stasis, Bradt was sending photos of the site and his findings to prospective excavators. These photos would prove interesting, for nobody knew what they were looking at. And once the excavators came in, they would dig up one of the most amazing finds in paleontology.
5. The Bearpaw Shale
The area in which the bones were found gave paleontologists a clue as to what the mysterious find might be. This location was the Bearpaw Shale, which is located about 50 miles south of Malta, Montana. Amazingly, this area used to be the location of an ancient mud pit — a giant, ancient mud pit.
This mud pit was around 66 to 100 million years old, placing it in the late Cretaceous geological period. What this meant is that the bones that it contained would likely be something of the dinosaur-era persuasion. What’s more, however, is that this location was deeply submerged beneath water, hinting that it might be something aquatic.
6. An ancient sea
This mud pit existed within a giant bed of water called the Western Interior Seaway. This seaway stretched from the Arctic Sea all the way through Canada and the United States to meet with the Gulf of Mexico. Most of Montana, then, was previously submerged in water.
In this ancient seaway, we find some of the most breathtaking aquatic creatures ever to exist. Let’s take a look at two, just to prime us for what these paleontologists had expected to find. These creatures are not only huge, but reptilian and carnivorous. The first of these is the mosasaur, a species of prehistoric beast that was unbelievably terrifying.
The mosasaur was one of the largest oceanic predators ever to exist. Many different variations of the species evolved, yielding terror in many different forms. What’s especially terrifying about this ugly assortment is that they were just as large as they were predatory. They would feast on giant sharks, whales, and even other mosasaurs.
Many of the mosasaur species stretched in length to about 30 or 50 feet. This meant that they were longer than the T. rex. This breathtaking fact is considered even more staggering given their close evolutionary ties to snakes and monitor lizards (things like the Komodo dragon). But this wasn’t the creature that Bradt found. What Bradt found was even stranger …
8. Scientists get another clue
Plesiosaurs are another of the oceanic beasts that were common to the Western Interior Seaway. These creatures had long necks and, like whales, breathed air. They came complete with paddle-like flippers, an abundance of vertebrae, and a predatory disposition instrumental to their ability to catch and eat prey.
The bones that Bradt found, however, weren’t of the plesiosaur, either. Or, if they were, they weren’t of any known species. To get a better grasp on what, exactly, he found, they had to keep digging. And for this, they called in more excavators. They found that what they were looking at was something never before seen by the paleontological community.
9. More excavation
Excavators were certain that the fossil had to be one of these two types of dinosaurs. They were also sure, however, that it wasn’t a mosasaur — it didn’t have the long neck. But if it was a plesiosaur, it wouldn’t have been one anything like what they knew. This was the suspicion they were running on, however, so they had to dig deeper to locate its long neck.
So, they kept digging. They uncovered teeth that looked like that of a cougar’s, the remainder of a bedraggled skull, and a tail that wrapped around the rest of the broken, weathered body. Together, all of these bones helped to create a picture of something totally unknown. This skeleton was something that left the paleontologists confused.
10. Dissolving rock
To understand what they had found, the scientists had to first dissolve the rock that surrounded the artifacts. While they knew they had discovered something they had never seen, they didn’t know what, precisely, it was. And to do this, they had to implement one of the common tactics of the paleontologist: dissolving the rock.
To do this, they would first have to pour a diluted acid onto the rock encasing the bone. Depending on the specific type of rock, they would have to calibrate the dilution of this acid carefully. After the dissolution process, however, they realized that they didn’t have enough bone to identify the lost creature. To get a better picture, they had to go back and find more.
11. Washed away
After the primary dig, which unearthed most of the body, neck, and head, there was still much to be recovered. Many parts of the specimen, for instance, had been washed into different parts of the stream where it was buried. To get a complete — or, at least, more complete — skeleton, they would have to search through this area to find the missing fragments.
After continued excavation, they found more parts of the neck — a key indicator of what would come. And with these recovered fragments, they were a few steps closer to having an exact identification of this bizarre and unknown creature of the deep. What they would then find would forever change the field of paleontology.
12. A hard trek
Now with enough finds to identify the beast, they had to get the specimen back to the lab. And to do this, they would have to embark upon quite the trek. The journey was a simple 1.5 miles. But this journey was through thick, unrelenting mud, bushes, and brambles. The difficulty of such a trek was amplified by the fact that they were carrying priceless fossils.
Another major obstacle for the scientists was the nearly blinding presence of deer flies — giant flies that bite and suck the blood of any animal they latch on to. Imagine hiking through the woods with swarms of these annoying little guys flying around your face. Despite these many hurdles, they were able to get the materials over to a lab, but would they make it to their extraction point without damaging any of their fragile fossils?
13. A long process
To get the specimen fully completed and pieced into something they could understand, scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks would carefully piece together the fragments over the next two years. They had to dissolve rock from bone, mix and match the pieces, and ultimately, reconstruct what was one of the most dangerous predators imaginable.
The primary scientist responsible for this process was Patrick Druckenmiller. He helped to coordinate the dig, the working paleontologists, and the orchestration of retrieving and moving the fossils. Because of his careful planning and deliberation, the fossil could be moved and pieced into what would eventually change our understanding of the late Cretaceous Period. But what would this predator actually have looked like?
14. Scientists debate
Even with all of the evidence in front of them, it was still difficult to determine what creature they were looking at. Two paleontologists in particular had a vigorous debate over its specifics. Mostly, they were uncertain as to just what species this was. During the excavation process, for instance, their thoughts vacillated wildly. Their predictions were made more uncertain after each piece they found.
One of these scientists thought that the dinosaur was an earlier version of a plesiosaur — that long-necked creature we mentioned earlier. The other just didn’t know. After the final pieces were cleaned from their rock shells, however, things began to get more clear. This is when the final determination was made. What they found was something new, yet ancient, and mysterious.
15. A new type of dinosaur
What these scientists had found was an ancient dinosaur that they had never before seen. And this new dinosaur, as it turns out, was not another species of the mosasaur — that sharp-toothed, murderous creature that preyed on other large dinosaurs. Instead, it was another branch of the plesiosaur variety — a scary, long-necked plesiosaur.
This particular creature was young, fanged, and mysteriously disproportionate; most notably, it had a shorter neck than all previously discovered plesiosaurs. Because of this, it was named an Elasmosaurus. This species was shorter, and had fewer vertebrae, but was just as murderous as its well-known cousin. To give you a picture of why this thing was small: A full-sized Elasmosaurus is expected to grow up to 40 feet in length. This specimen was only 18 feet.
16. The new species
The species of Elasmosaurus they had found was shocking in that it had a diminutive number of vertebrae. Most species of Elasmosaurus, for instance, have something around 76. This younger specimen, however, only had 40. So what happened to the other 36 vertebrae? Scientists are still trying to answer this question.
This Elasmosaurus lived at the same time as the others, suggesting that it derived from an entirely different evolutionary trajectory. The carnivorous creature, then, would compete in the same North American waters, look for the same types of food, and have the same roaming habitats. It’s uncertain which of the species was more successful.
17. The greater Montana area
Many other species of animal existed in the Montana area at this time. These species, if they existed around the same time, fill us in on the habitat that the ancient Elasmosaurus would have lived in. There are two areas in particular that are the most famous in all of Montana. These are the Two Medicine Formation and the Hell Creek Formation.
One of the more famous species recovered from these areas is the Tyrannosaurus rex. This king of the terrible lizards was responsible for the deaths of many lesser dinosaur creatures. With its massive jaws and tiny arms, it would lumber around the land, taking foes by sheer force (some might say sheer “crunch”). This was the land equivalent of our friend the Elasmosaurus.
18. Paleontology from a bone
Reconstructing fossils from bone fragments isn’t exactly easy. But once you understand a few things about fossils, bones, and the anatomy that they belong to, you can understand just how the process works. This is the process scientists like Patrick Druckenmiller used. And it’s these processes that got us the Elasmosaurus.
There’s a story about Sir Richard Owen, for instance, wherein he identified a single species (the ancient moa bird) from one claw alone. What’s staggering about this amazing feat of comparative anatomy is that this species was previously undiscovered. This is the type of science that one must engage in when bones are hard to find. It’s also the type of science that enables us to understand the newly discovered Elasmosaurus.
19. How scientists know
There are a few facts we know about the structure of skeletons and how they grow that allows paleontologists to roughly determine the age, size, and stature of ancient creatures. Once you understand these, you can extrapolate from the bones you find to predict their age, body size, and sex. One of these methods is to compare how much bone you find in relation to cartilage.
As bone grows, for instance, it adds length to its ends. Then, it takes its time to transform from its non-solid state into one that is more solid. This is what turns it to bone. This process is called ossification, and is a key indicator for paleontologists. These facts were used by Druckenmiller and his team to determine that the fossil they had just found was far younger than expected.
20. Bones and evolution
Paleontologists need to work through miles of weeds in order to ascertain the details necessary to identify an old, ancient species. The fossil can be young, old, male, female, or anything in between. Because of this, it is exceptionally difficult to get the exact specifics for one particular species.
For this freshly discovered Elasmosaurus, these scientists likely gauged the age by its composition of bone and cartilage. If some of the fossilized material is clearly not bone, one could tell that it was younger than a full-grown adult. This ratio of developed to undeveloped, then, could be used to determine the rough estimate of the creature’s age.
Other creatures’ remains commonly found in the lands of Montana include raptors. But these raptors aren’t the famed velociraptors found in places like Mongolia. Instead, Montana was home to things like the Deinonychus (pronounced dy-non-i-kes). This raptor was large (around 11 feet long), feathered, and the basis for Jurassic Park’s raptor population.
There were also some tiny raptors around at the time. One of these was the aptly named Bambiraptor, named for its vague resemblance to the fictional fawn, Bambi. These raptors roamed the land in search of other animals to eat. These are just some of the creatures you would expect to encounter if you attempted to escape the clutches of the sea.
Other ancient creatures that existed in the late Cretaceous Period were more oriented toward defense. A few of these creatures were things like ceratopsians. One of the more famous ceratopsians was the Triceratops. This thing had horns, a frilled outer coating of scales, and a plate-like forehead that helped it to defend itself.
Other species of ceratopsians also existed in Montana around 80 million years ago. Some of these other species included things like the eponymously named Montanoceratops. This thing had elongated spines that ran all across its back, also likely acting as a way to defend itself from large predators like the T. rex.
23. A new name
The new species of Elasmosaurus, however, was what you would find in the sea. This specific species was given the new name, Nakonanectes bradti, named in part after Bradt, who discovered the find, and the Nakona people of northeastern Montana. Biologists often have leeway with the names they decide to give new species, and this is where the new name comes from.
This is the same reason we have things like Gnathia marleyi, a parasitic crustacean named after the famed reggae musician Bob Marley, and the Beyoncé housefly, Scaptia beyonceae. Naming rights are given to the paleontologist who finds the fossil, and is considered a high privilege. The only hope is that they don’t take that privilege and use it unwisely.
24. The first Elasmosaurus
The Elasmosaurus found in Montana was not the first of its kind, however. There were other similar species that were found previously. In 1868 in Kansas, for instance, a species was found that was thought to have an extraordinarily large tail. Instead, this tail was its neck. The mistake was the fault of the fossils’ discoverer, Edward Drinker Cope.
Since he was an expert on lizards, his prediction was biased in the direction of lizards, which have longer tails than they do necks. From this, he extrapolated that the Elasmosaurus was structured similarly. He was, however, incorrect. What he had found instead was the first version of a prehistoric Elasmosaurus.
25. A total bias
While the area in which the Elasmosaurus was found is an area in which many ancient marine reptiles can be located, there is a bias among researchers and the public in favor of terrestrial creatures. The reasons for this are a little bit difficult to comprehend, but are ultimately why things like the Western Interior Seaway are less popular to explore.
One reason is likely the popularization of films like Jurassic Park. Here, you have terrestrial dinosaurs breaking free from parks and eating everyone they find. And for this reason, things like the terrifying T. rex get all the attention. Since people weren’t really concerned with sea creatures like the Elasmosaurus, they were left underground.
26. A long time to know
Curiously, more details came out about the newly discovered Elasmosaurus after several more years of study. It took about seven years, but they found out that the thing was far more different than the other species they found — i.e., it was something new and never discovered.
This new species was one with a smaller neck, which would confound scientists and muddy their previously clear understanding of aquatic neck evolution. The discovery would act as another milestone in the identification of these animals that existed at the time. We now know that this find wasn’t only an Elasmosaurus with a shorter neck, but one that differed entirely from what was found previously.
27. A deep mystery
Scientists have long thought that the length of the Elasmosaurus’ neck was due to the advantage it gave it while hunting prey. This explanation has somewhat evaporated. While the neck was previously thought to be flexible and capable of a wide range of movement, scientists now know it to have something near the opposite.
Scientists now suspect that the neck of the Elasmosaurus was something rigid — like that of your shoulders once you get too muscular. While the neck could probably move a little bit laterally, it would likely not be afforded much movement up and down. This is one of the deeper mysteries surrounding the Elasmosaurus.
28. Giraffes and other long-necked things
Giraffes have evolved their long necks to help them reach foliage that is high up in the trees. While there were major evolutionary blunders trying to explain this length in other ways (scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, for instance, had suggested that they stretched themselves to their current length), the current settled notion is that they gained it through genetic inheritance.
But even with this as a way to understand the Elasmosaurus’ massive neck, scientists are still confused. There are many competing explanations for the neck, in other words. Most of these aim to explain the extra vertebrae through the means of predation. It helped them to get food, the hypotheses go.
29. What could have helped
One explanation for their necks is that it would have helped them get into small places. They could, in other words, reach into the small holes in rock walls and reach food that was otherwise difficult to reach. Another explanation is that the slender neck would enable them to sneak up on fishy foes.
Yet another explanation is sexual selection. Like the peacock’s tail, the long neck could have been selected for by Elasmosaurus females in dinosaur heat. The longer the neck, they would think, the more biological resources this thing had to devote to superfluous growth. Most species have special traits they use to flaunt their flair in order to attract a mate, and the dinosaurs were no different.
Ultimately, the new discovery of the Elasmosaurus species broke new ground in the paleontological community. Not only did it show that new, more diminutive versions of the long-necked creature survived and thrived, but it also showed that novices can find fossils, too. This included, in the case of this Elasmosaurus, Bradt and his two children.
If you find yourself meandering through the deep Montana wilderness, then, you might want to consider looking down. The act might help you to discover a new, mind-boggling fossil. And with this, you can bring your dinosaur-crazed children out for an adventure. Only then will you be considered the best parent on Earth.