a production of Black Hills Institute

  Meet the Dig Team
 
Dig teams often have a good share of colorful people, and this one is no exception!

This web site is built upon the expertise and co-operation of its host scientists at Black Hills Institute of Geological Research (BHI), the world's largest private fossil preparatory. BHI crews have dug more T. rex specimens than any other institution in the world. "Wyrex" will be its eighth!

Over the past thirty years, BHI crews also have dug hundreds of other dinosaurs, as well as thousands of other fossils of all kinds. In their "spare time," BHI principals also have published scientific studies and books, as well as being featured on educational television - including The Learning Channel, Discovery, and National Geographic. They have collaborated with several of the field's top scientists on various cutting-edge projects - including, for example, a recent examination with Dr. Robert Bakker of the dinosaur version of a wishbone, called a furcula. This group combines the best of expertise, scientific knowledge, and also plenty of personality.

The team is led by BHI president Peter Larson, a lifelong fossil lover and one of the world's leading experts on T. rex - and his brother, Neal Larson, an ammonite expert who has found and named many new species of these amazing relatives of the chambered nautilus.


  The Discoverers

Don, Wyrex's co-discoverer / the landowner / our host

A lifelong Montana resident, and a rancher "forever and a day," Don has been interested in fossils for 10 or 12 years. These extinct things fit with his tendency to collect "old stuff," including antique, horse-drawn wagons and farm machinery, household items, and a selection of buckboards (using one buckboard and team, he was an extra in the movie Far and Away).

"I had seen some bones on my land, and I knew they had to be old, but I didn't know how old," he says. "I stumbled across a paleontologist looking for bones, and I asked him questions and learned a little bit - from then on I looked on my own." And he also allowed Dan Wells to have a look on his land; together these two loners found Wyrex.

Don enjoys the ranching lifestyle, and being his own boss. Plus a few other things that are components of fossil work. "Nature. Animals. Rattlesnakes perking up your day." He recalls the day Wyrex was discovered, "it was exciting and I knew it had some potential, but being a rancher all the time, you learn not to get your hopes up." A lot can go wrong on the prairie. But it seems that Wyrex isn't one of those things. "I want this dinosaur out there so people can enjoy it, and for BHI and other scientists to learn more about what happened way back then."

Well, that seems doable. Especially with the support of his wife Allison, and what will soon be 17 children ("hers, mine, and ours," he explains). The whole family has gotten the fossil bug. It's a good thing, too. He adds with a wink, "There's a lot of good country that's never been looked at."

Dan Wells, Wyrex co-discoverer / police officer

Dan is the quintessential example of an amateur paleontologist - a dedicated enthusiast who loves paleontology for the discovery. A police officer for 25 years, he has been studying and looking for fossils for 10 years - and his dedication proved out with the fabulous find that has brought us all here.

What helped him find Wyrex? "I think I've developed a good eye," he says. "I use a combination of intuition and deduction. I just knew it had to be here!" After the first bone was found, it was just a matter of perseverance. After he began to uncover the main mass of bones, he went numb. Even after nearly a year - July 3rd, 2003, 12 noon (but who's counting?) - "I'm still numb, and that's the God's honest truth," Dan says.

Even though our crew has inundated him (and the landowners) here, Dan is a great sport. "This crew is so real, so down to earth," he says. "I feel lucky to be here." Usually, though, Dan likes to come out to Montana from his home in Minnesota, just to go out on his own for the thrill of exploration. That's okay, Dan, you can do that again soon - later this summer. We'll come back when you call!


  BHI Dig Crew

Peter Larson, paleontologist / BHI president

Pete's been "officially" working with fossils for 30 years at his company, and for 3 years of college before that - but unofficially, he has worked with fossils since he was 4 years old. "I LOVE working with fossils," he says. "They put us in our place in the universe."

Pete created BHI, which began as a supplier of fossils and minerals for educators. Over the decades, the company has evolved into the world's largest private fossil preparatory and a supplier for museums. Because of that, and because of a little gal named Sue, the company has become known worldwide - and Pete has become one of the world's experts on T. rex. This is the company's eighth T. rex!

But Pete has done more than his resume suggests. There's something about his infectious enthusiasm and his childlike exuberance that can make fossils interesting to anyone. Even people who aren't particularly interested in dinosaurs. Or in science. Or in Pete. Somehow they end up at BHI, or at a dinosaur dig, usually with a shovel and a smile.

Pete has lots of skills, but when asked about this, he focuses on one: "I love taking a pile of bones and turning it into something that resembles the true, living, breathing animal." He learned to do this by following the same advice he gives kids interested in science: "Never give up!"

Neal Larson, paleontologist / photographer / BHI vice-president

Although ammonites are his passion, Neal is a dinosaur's best friend. He oversees BHI's preparation, and is especially fabulous at restoration. It is Neal who fabricates missing parts, and makes a whole creature out of "half a man." Like his brother, Pete, Neal has been picking up bones for basically his whole life. It was so much fun, he changed his life goals from being a teacher and a rancher - into being a paleontologist.

Neal is also a wonderfully inspirational speaker to children, and he often visits schools with a collection of fossils. After 30 years in the profession, he has plenty to share. He's also been involved in scientific research, often with the giants in his favorite area of study, ammonites. He's in the process of naming about 50 new species, and he contributed to the work of other scientists in naming 30 more.

At camp, another of Neal's skills is coming in very handy: photography. He's great at portraits, and many of the shots you see on the site are his. Whether in fossils or photos, Neal knows what it's like to start from scratch - and he encourages kids interested in science to DO IT! "Go for it, whether it's a hobby or a profession. Continue with it. It will be the best thing that's ever happened to your life."

Matt Larson, dig co-coordinator / digger

Matt has been working with fossils for 18 years, and he's only 24! He says he came into paleontology because of genetics, and he did - he's Pete's son. Over the years, he has taken on more and more responsibility, and sometimes he even supervises some of the summer digs. He has a t-shirt that reads, "Your dream is my day job."

Matt has always been good with his hands, and you can tell this because not only is he an excellent digger and preparator, but he also plays guitar. He says manual dexterity and patience can be applied to lots of jobs - in paleontology, these skills allow him to work well with all kinds of tools, and to "manipulate small, fragile bones into the spots where they belong."

A great problem solver, Matt loves watching a project move through its stages into completion. He feels the same way about life: "Let your dreams take you as far as you can, and then keep going!"

Sam Farrar, dig co-coordinator / digger

Sam is another second-generation BHI guy. When we asked what brought him to BHI, he answered, "my stroller," and it's true. Bob Farrar, a BHI co-owner, is his dad, and Sam has been digging in the dirt since he can remember. As a grown-up, he's been working at the company for nine years, excavating, preparing, mounting, and working on machinery. He's also shown amazing creativity when renovating vehicles for field use. Thanks to him, the "chow van" has fabulous cabinets and drawers that hold everything and don't fly out when driving on the prairie.

Sam's life at BHI has bitten him for good; he's now a student of geology at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. His work, both at work and school, has built invaluable experience. "Fossils have gained my respect," he says. And this shows in Sam's dedication.

If kids are looking for inspiration, they can find it in Sam. He's living proof of what a life in paleontology can be like. "Learn what you're interested in!" he advises.

Chris Ott, paleontologist at large

Chris has been working with BHI for one and a half years, after graduating from University of Wisconsin, Madison with a Masters in geology. "I started with preparation, but my work has evolved into more researching," he says. "The best part of my job is meeting people and talking with those who share the same interests."

Chris is a perfectionist, a talent (he calls it a personality flaw!) he learned as a kid when he built lots of model airplanes. He has translated those fine-tuned skills into his work with fossils, the coolest of which so far is Kelsey - one of the most complete Triceratops skeletons ever found. Chris was one of Kelsey's chief preparators, and his work helped the science of paleontology with the latest information on how Triceratops moved.

Paleontology isn't an easy job. Chris's advice: "If you want to pursue it, you have to love it!"

Matt Seney, digger / amateur zoologist with an interest in herpetology

An employee at BHI for three years, Matt is a Jack of all trades. He enjoys field work best, but also prepares fossils and makes molds. Before this, he worked with living reptiles - and before that, as a kid, he grew up with 170 animals in his bedroom. Birds, reptiles, turtles, frogs, snakes, ferrets, hedgehogs, other small mammals, many different lizards, including iguanas and monitors, one rat, and many fish. Plus, he had a tub of crickets as food items for these creatures, along with meal worms and veggies in the fridge. Although this was a challenge for his parents, they seemed very supportive. (Except this goofy group began questioning their motives when Matt added that his parents let him have a venomous snake before he could have a cat!)

As you can see, Matt is a true animal lover - and his interest adds a particularly important element to the study of fossils. It is through observing and knowing living things that scientists can know more and more about extinct things. With Matt's exposure to dead creatures, "I think about animals that I never really thought about before." His favorite part about working with BHI is "seeing really cool things and working on them before the world gets to see," he says. Plus, "I like watching how quickly a mounted skeleton is put together."

As if all of this weren't enough, Matt can put his legs behind his head!

Nikki Farrar, camp chef / fossil restorer

A BHI employee for two years, Nikki arrived at the company because of true love - with Sam, now her husband. When she first arrived at the company, all she knew about dinosaurs came from The Land Before Time. Now that she knows how close dinosaurs are, she likes working on the "real McCoy."

Very meticulous and detail oriented, Nikki's skills apply well to the field, the lab - and, thankfully here out in the field, in the kitchen. Her contributions are many, and necessary; nearly everyone on this trip remembers what it's like to do field work with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as the only fuel.

But it would sell Nikki short to say that she isn't a real fossil worker, too. You can tell from what she says is her favorite part of the job: "Watching people who realize that this is their dream, like kids standing in awe," she says. She encourages kids to "become involved, go to museums, and learn!"

Steve Sacrison, Bobcat operator / digger

Steve has been working with fossils for twelve years, and he came onto the scene with a big bang—working on a T. rex. His brother Stan had found the famous fossil named Stan, and Steve was asked to bring his excavating skills to the site. When Steve excavates, he does it quickly, efficiently, and loudly—with a Bobcat skid-steer loader. He's one of the best operators we've ever seen, and it's always good to see him on a BHI excavation.

Steve caught the fossil bug after the Stan dig, and aside from plenty of other fossils, including several Triceratops skulls, Steve found his own T. rex! This one had been cannibalized by another T. rex, and therefore is very important to science. They're also important to Steve's sanity. "Fossils provide an escape for me," Steve says. "They're so enjoyable, it doesn't even seem like work."

The Bobcat isn't Steve's only tool; he's also great with hand tools, and he excavates carefully and well. It seems as if the fossil gene is definitely passed down the family line: Steve's sons are naturals, too. Having raised three amateur paleontologists himself, Steve has great advice for other young enthusiasts. "Try to find somebody who does it, and see if they won't teach you. Just go for it!"

John Carter, carpenter / digger (occasional 'stunt digger')

Like Steve Sacrison, John entered the digging life about twelve years ago at the Stan T. rex dig. He arrived a novice, and left hooked. "Stan and Pete taught me how to dig and prepare fossils," John said. Now he's a veteran in the field.

But John is much more than an amateur paleontologist. He's a character, too. When John's on a site, there is more laughter and there are more stories. "What I like best is meeting people from all walks of life, from all areas of the world," he says. "And learning about digging, and about fossils." John, a carpenter by trade, takes his hobby seriously. He reads books and takes notes. He learns the Latin names of dinosaurs. His facility with tools makes him a good digger, and his attention to detail makes him a good student. In all of this, John credits his general approach to life: "Trial and error. Trial and success."

He also knows that kids can do what he does. "Dinosaurs are going to be coming out of the ground way past when people are all in the ground," he says. "Just go for it!"


  Web Team

Larry Shaffer, Web site developer / technical guru

First of all, Larry is so busy working on this Web site (in true techno geek fashion), he can't stop to talk about himself. For that matter, he can't stop to eat. People keep bringing him food, which he sometimes eats warm, but usually not.

Larry came to BHI in 1994, and he had plenty of skills to recommend him for the job. Well, lots of jobs. Everyone who knows him recognizes (and usually teases him about) his incredible concentration and attention to detail. Whether it's in preparation, molding, or creating a computer network, Larry does it completely. And often in the middle of the night. He's also an expert rock climber, which has allowed him a unique "feel" for rocks - and fossils!

It was all Larry's doing, this interactive Web site about a T. rex dig. He conceived the entire project in his head, and no matter the obstacles, he simply kept at it. He wrote code, he edited programs, he outlined content. Whenever he discussed his idea, you could see wheels spinning in his head, revealing a much larger concept than we mere mortals could comprehend. Here in the Web Trailer, his idea is taking shape. It's a little cock-eyed still, because of technical and logistical challenges - but knowing Larry, it will soon be standing on all four of its feet.

Sarah Larson-Ness, Web site host / biologist

"Dad's infatuation with fossils is genetic," Sarah says of her father Pete. "I just took it for granted as a child, that we share a passion for rocks and their contents." Sarah's experience in the field of paleontology is simply a part of her life, and she's at home at remote locations, in all weather conditions, with all kinds of people. She is the perfect host for this project, even more so since her graduation with a biology degree. She's a scientist in her own right, with a specialty in wildlife rehabilitation.

Sarah is very particular, "annoyingly particular," she admits, which makes her excellent at the finer points of fossil work. With her friendly nature, she is great at sharing what she knows with "anyone willing to lend their ears." Just as she was inspired, she hopes to inspire kids. "Never forget your dreams! Make them real! Always ask questions!"

While Sarah says that "BHI is my family," she also acknowledges her wonderful husband, Rob, a training Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the Army. He's keeping track of her on location whenever she can get a phone signal.

Kristin Donnan, Web site writer

Kristin is a freelance writer who began her relationship with dinosaurs in 1993, when she started interviewing BHI personnel about Sue, their first T. rex. Since then, she's written magazine articles about BHI's adventures in the field, as well as two books with Pete, Rex Appeal, and a children's book that will be released this month, Bones Rock! Everything You Need to Know to Be a Paleontologist.

While she's been to many digs over the years, she does what she can to avoid picking and shoveling. Her expertise rests in writing down what everyone else does, and she doesn't mind roughing it. "I have two favorite parts of covering dinosaur digs," she says. "One is watching the fun of discovery, and the other is translating science into English for the reader."

As for kids, Kristin has seen tons of them approach a dinosaur skeleton with their mouths hanging open. She's happy to be part of this Web site, where everyone who wants to can do a little bit of that virtually.

Dan Counter, videographer

Dan is an adventurer who has found the perfect job. He's an extreme skier and mountain biker, plus his college focus was in geology. He chose a profession of video production, and for many years shot documentaries and commercials for mining companies. He added dinosaur digs to his repertoire 14 seasons ago, when working on an A&E production called "Dinosaur." He's been shooting BHI digs each summer ever since.

His skills are varied and exactly what's required. When the dig is happening, he's documenting it. If there's nothing to shoot, his construction crew past comes in handy for picking and shoveling; when there are quartz to collect, he's in his element. This crew has seen Dan schlepping huge cameras and equipment cases up steep hills - he says his job has gotten easier over the years, as camera equipment has gotten lighter.

While he misses his kids while he's out in the field, he still loves the excitement of seeing new things. And as a veteran "kid," he advises interested students that paleontology is cool. "It's not as boring as English Lit!" he says.

Sara Booth, our conduit to the world

Without Sara, we would be lost out here. Well, almost. She's BHI's public face for this crew - but that's just for this project. She's got lots of other skills, too. She's been at BHI for about nine years, and was introduced to the company through her then-boyfriend and now-husband Larry Shaffer, our techno guru.

Sara started at BHI as a preparator, and her experience as a rock climber helped her with her "rock relationship." (Lots of climbers have worked at BHI, because of their specialized, face-to-face, life-and-death rock work.) She's also "fussy about details, and never had an aversion to hard work or dirt" - excellent qualities for anyone dealing with fossils. It's also handy that's she's an EMT, too.

Her advice to future diggers: "Take all the science classes you can, be in the habit of wearing sunscreen, and be the geek who wears the hat." See how she takes care of everyone?


  Visiting Paleontologists

Nate Murphy, paleontologist

One of our visiting experts, Nate is the curator of paleontology for the Judith River Dinosaur Institute. He's been digging dinosaurs since he was ten years old - with the giants in the field. Some of our Web dino enthusiasts will recognize the names Levi Sternberg, Harley Garbani, and even Barnum Brown, all of whom Nate worked with! Now he runs his own digs.

"Even the subject matter in paleontology has changed since I was a young boy playing with plastic dinosaurs. They've gone from sluggish to dynamic, active creatures," he says. "As I've gotten older, I realize how short our time is on this earth."

Nate's specialty is taphonomy, the study of the events leading up to the preservation of a particular fossil. His most famous fossil is "Leonardo," a Brachylophosaurus, a mummified duckbill specimen with preserved skin, stomach contents, and even the shapes of muscles! This fossil preserves the most evidence of dinosaur muscle shapes of any dinosaur fossil. Nate's advice to kids with interest in the natural sciences: "go for it, because the world cannot survive on computers alone!"

Kirby Siber, paleontologist

Kirby traveled the furthest to join the Wyrex dig. The curator of the SaurierMuseum in Aathal-Seegraben, Switzerland, Kirby has been working in paleontology since 1972 - and with BHI since its founding 30 years ago. A Jurassic specialist, Kirby's favorite dinosaur is Stegosaurus, but he's dug lots of species of dinosaurs, including Diplodocus, Hypsolophodont, Camarasaurus and Allosaurus. He's also dug whales with Pete in Peru.

While Kirby spends plenty of time in the field, his main work focus is managing people. His work in preparation evolved into creating displays, interpreting the science, and finally into development of the full museum environment. "The best part of my job is when I see the gleaming eyes of excitement of children when they come into the museum," he says.

Kirby sees science as an endless adventure. "There is much to be discovered. There are many finds to be made, many adventures to be had." So many, in fact, that "the next generation will have to finish the job."


  Volunteers

Andy Arntz, paleontologist

Andy joins us from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. We met him first last fall, when he worked in the laboratory with BHI. "I like field work and preparation, anything that's hands-on," he says.

A double-major in geology and anthropology (he graduated in 2003), he's been a dinosaur fan since childhood. As a grown-up, his imagination has taken form. "When you find a fossil, it's the first time somebody actually gets to see it." Andy hopes to have that experience more and more; he has eyes on a permanent job with the Institute. "After working with BHI, I have a lot more respect for the people who do this job, because I realize how much work it takes to get something from the field to the museum."

Andy also loves trilobites, extinct bugs from 540 million years ago—he even has a big tattoo of one on left calf!

Mike Berglund, digger / sculptor

"Sculpting is what you do at a dig: just take away everything that isn't T. rex," Mike says. He's been attending BHI digs for four years, but his interest in dinosaurs started long before then. "I was born, and then I loved dinosaurs shortly thereafter." "Dinosaurs are why I do what I do." What does Mike do? He's a sculptor, an artist, a computer graphics designer - and a dinosaur artist. He's recently created a fleshed-on Allosaurus skull for BHI, along with other projects. Why? "King Kong is the culprit," he says. "Mom says I could say 'Tyrannosaurus' before i could say 'Mom.'"

With Mike's facility in molding, casting, sculpting, and fine detail work, he's perfect for this dig. He's also used to a job that changes each day. That's definitely this dig. "If five years ago, someone would have told me I would be going to a T. rex dig, and actually have a chance to brush some dirt off of it, i would have said, nah," Mike says, with unmistakable enthusiasm. "I thought I'd missed my chance by not becoming a paleontologist in school. With this opportunity, I'm a five-year-old every day. I have to pinch myself. Every minute is a thrill for me."

Every minute Mike is here is good for everyone else, too. He's a natural at "the work, the comraderie, the learning, being outdoors." That's what this place is like, a concentrated dinosaur research laboratory. With giant five-year-olds everywhere you look.

Tristan Birkemeier, amateur paleontologist

Tristan comes to us from The Children's Museum at Indianapolis, where he has interned for a year. He's also a senior at the University of Indianapolis, where he's studying Earth / Space Science. His work has changed him already. "I'm understanding textures, more about rocks and minerals, and learning a lot more about evolution morphology," he says. He defines "evolution morphology" as how early creatures evolved into dinosaurs or what we see today.

He's here because he "wanted to further (his) knowledge in preparation, molding, casting—anything there is." This summer, he will be participating in what he thinks is most interesting: discovery. "There's still mystery about excavation," he says. "You might find something different!"

We agree; that's why everyone checking out this Web site is checking out this Web site!

We're sure Tristan will have a great summer. He's not afraid of hard work (he benched 280 pounds recently—you should see his arms!), and this experience will help him in his Big Picture. "This gives me something to shoot for, career goals, and a reason for living!"

Bob Cassaday, amateur paleontologist

A retired naval Lieutenant Commander, Bob has been volunteering at BHI for 12 years. "I had a tough time retiring, so I started working with and studying paleontology as a hobby," he says. "I enjoy fossils, but I really enjoy the people who work with them."

Bob is always fun to have at a dig. He's got a great sense of humor, and is easy to have on a team. "Working with fossils has enriched my life. I can share most anything," he explains. "If you can't share, you don't mean much to the world." After all of his years of volunteering and learning, Bob has even given fossil and dinosaur presentations to school kids.

All of Bob's life experience works well in the field, but he says his best skills are "a great affinity with pick axe and wheel barrow." He's also good at wielding words and remembering jokes, which makes the cold days and evenings more fun.

Ray Colby, photographer

A Minneapolis dinosaur enthusiast since grade school, Ray began his dinosaur love affair by sketching and painting—and as a grown-up he became a photographer. He's been combining photography and fossils since 1996, and even began lighting and shooting a traveling dinosaur show, Dino Fest, in 2000.

"I've photographed a lot of things in my life, but the textures of fossils are completely unique. Paleontology is its own natural art," Ray explains. "It's a thrill to be on location here. I like to use the natural lighting and natural background in photographs."

We'll see lots of examples of Ray's art in the next two weeks!

Victor Porter, amateur paleontologist / adventurer / jeweler

Victor has been working with BHI for 19 years. He was on vacation all those years ago when he volunteered at a dig, and he continues to work with the company during each year's vacation (so does his wife, Dee Ann, and their children). In these last two decades, this jeweler-by-trade has had lots of experience caving, and volunteering at The Children's Museum in Indianapolis (TCM) and the Indiana State Museum.

Even more than all of those "outdoorsy" skills, Victor is a people person. When we asked him what his favorite thing is about dinosaurs, he says, "Pete and Neal!" (We're not sure if he means that Pete and Neal are dinosaurs?) Besides that, he also says that dinosaurs are a "great family experience." But most of all, everyone keeps catching Victor giving away his dinosaur jewelry.

On the professional front, Victor is credited with putting his people skills to work in facilitating the excellent relationship between BHI and America's largest children's museum, TCM. That museum will be debuting its brand new "Dinosphere" in June - and BHI will have completed much of the work on TCM's nine new, real dinosaur skeletons, as well as cast replicas and many other exhibits.




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