Missouri dinosaur gets exposure on Discovery cable series

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dinosaur bones first discovered in the 1940s by a family digging a well near Cape Girardeau, Mo., are gaining national attention through a Discovery Channel series looking at prehistoric America.

Strangely enough, the site is actually included in an episode looking at “Prehistoric Chicago.” It’s not that the show’s producers are geographically challenged. It’s just that there aren’t all that many dinosaur digs in the Midwest.

“They seemed to feel the need to prove there could have been dinosaurs in Chicago,” said Michael Fix, a University of Missouri-St. Louis geologist who has been working the Bollinger County site for more than two decades and is featured in the Discovery series.

While some might be surprised to learn that dinosaurs once roamed the streets of Chicago — before streets existed, of course — Fix takes it in stride: “Dinosaurs have been found on every continent. Even Antarctica. They’re everywhere.”

One of the reasons the Missouri site hasn’t gotten a lot of attention could be the fact that it has yielded bones belonging to some of the less sexy dinosaurs of prehistoric times. You won’t find many Hollywood-hyped meateaters or other favorites such as the Triceratops or Stegosaurus. While they’ve found a few pieces belonging to an older relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex, the site has mostly surrendered parts belonging to the Hadrosaur (or more scientifically, the Hypsibema missouriense), a duck-billed plant-eater that is now the state’s official dinosaur.

A mock-up of the dinosaur, along with various fossils pulled from the clay, are on display at the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History.

Fix says it’s just a matter of chance that the state even has this, its only dinosaur dig.

The location came to light during the 1940s when a state geologist was out looking for clay deposits in southeastern Missouri. In Bollinger County, he came across a farm where a family mentioned they’d run into clay while digging a well. Mixed in with the excavated clay were a collection of bones later confirmed by the Smithsonian to be dinosaur.

After some initial interest, the site lay dormant until the 1970s, when Bruce Stinchcomb, a professor at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, purchased the land for its fossils. In the 1980s, Fix and Guy Darrough, a fossil collector and owner of Arnold’s Lost World Studios, received permission to start their own excavation into the 75 million-year-old site.

For more than a decade, the two have worked an area roughly 36 feet by 20 feet, covered by a greenhouse to keep water from pooling in the clay pit. Work is in limbo right now, while they wait for a new greenhouse to replace theirs, but Fix says they have many more years’ worth of work ahead of them. Complicating matters is all that clay, which actually preserves the dinosaur bones. These aren’t like the bones found out west that have been exposed to minerals and allowed to harden like rocks. “These are still original bones. They are very fragile,” Fix said. “It’s slow going.”

Fix said the “Prehistoric Chicago” show periodically runs on Discovery’s Science and Planet Green channels. It’s also currently part of a DVD, “Prehistoric,” being sold by Discovery.

For more information related to dinosaurs, visit rareresource.com.


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