A fossil-hunting trip to celebrate a son's homecoming resulted in the recent discovery of an ancient sea monster in central Montana.
Believed to be approximately 70 million years old, its skull and lower jaw represent the first complete skull of a long-necked plesiosaur found in Montana, according to Montana State University experts. The skull is said to be one of the best specimens of its kind in North America.
"It's a very important specimen," MSU paleontologist Jack Horner said at the Museum of the Rockies, in Bozeman, Mont., where the fossil rests in boxes. "We have been looking for it for a long, long time."
Ken Olson of Lewistown said he and his son, Garrett, found the fossils in mid-August about 75 miles northeast of Lewistown. Since Horner was in Mongolia, Olson said he prepared the fossils himself and delivered them to Horner about three weeks later. Olson, a retired Lutheran pastor, has long collected fossils for the museum. Two of his best finds are the large Torosaurus skulls displayed there.
Horner said the head of a short-necked plesiosaur was found previously in Montana, but he had been waiting for the discovery of a complete long-necked plesiosaur skull. Both were ancient sea reptiles that lived during the time of the dinosaurs.
"This critter is one of the long, ridiculously long-necked plesiosaurs," said Pat Druckenmiller, an MSU expert in marine reptile fossils. Druckenmiller, who described a new plesiosaur called Edgarosaurus from southern Montana in 2002, was part of a Norwegian expedition in August that mapped the location of several giant fossils in the Arctic. He is now an adjunct instructor in the Department of Earth Sciences at MSU.
Based on other fossils of this type in the world, the new Montana fossil could have had as many as 50 to 70 vertebrae in its neck, Druckenmiller said.