CHISHOLM — Did dinosaurs exist on the Iron Range 80-110 million years ago?

Yes, they did, according to Minnesota Discovery Center paleontologist John Westgaard.

After Minnesota’s first dinosaur bone was found in Crow Wing County, another bone from a raptor-like dinosaur was located about six years ago at the Hill Annex Mine in Calumet, he said.

“That was just the second dinosaur bone ever found in Minnesota.’’

The bone was from the end of the toe in a dromaeosaur dinosaur, which would have been 5- or 6-feet tall.

Combined with finding a humerus bone from a protostega, one of the largest turtles to ever swim in the ocean, Westgaard and research partner Doug Hanks knew they were on to something with their Hill Annex Paleontology Project.

“Every year since 2014 — with the protostega and the dromaeosaur claw — we find something new that hasn’t been documented here in the Coleraine’’ area, Westgaard said.

That continued in 2019 when a vertebrae from an ostrich-like dinosaur was found. The vertebrae “is very likely dinosaur bone No. 3 from Minnesota.’’

Westgaard and Hanks had the idea for the Paleontology Project in 2013 and the name was officially coined in 2014.

Hill Annex is not the only location where fossils have been found, Westgaard said. Thanks to scientific literature, “we’ve been able to confirm at least eight other sites along the Range, so Hill Annex is not alone. It goes all the way from Cohasset to Virginia that there is fossil occurrence.’’

Westgaard utilizes more than 40 volunteers to hunt for the fossils in the waste rock stockpiles at Hill Annex. “Anybody is welcome’’ to volunteer if they like. The volunteers just have to get trained in so Westgaard and Hanks assist them out in the field.

“It’s just mostly a lot of weather and bugs and dirt, so if you can handle those three things, we can teach you how to find a fossil.’’

It still takes a lot of practice to pick out fossils from the big rock piles.

“The vast majority of my volunteers had no experience fossil hunting ever before. Some of them are really good.’’

Westgaard said samples are brought out to the hill so the fossil hunters can see what they are supposed to be looking for.

“We don’t fail when we help people find a fossil.’’

If something is found, the outer layers are cleaned off or removed with a mini pick or a micro jackhammer. With some of the waste rock being in place for decades, new finds are sometimes stabilized with a special glue, according to Westgaard.

The method is similar to what he did when he started volunteering in paleontology at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s paleo lab. The work can be difficult and time-consuming, but can also be extremely rewarding.

“Whatever you reveal, you are the first eyes that see it. You don’t always know what you’re revealing. It could be something brand new.’’

For three years before the

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coronavirus, interpretive tours were given. However, that has not been the case in the last two pandemic years, he added.

“We never have a group come out and get shut out. Almost everybody finds something. There’s a lot,’’ Westgaard said. “A lot of them are snails, especially the public pile. You never know what else you’ll find out there.’’

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The dinosaur fossils were something Westgaard never expected to find at Hill Annex.

“That was part of what drove me when I first started at the Science Museum. Part of our training was that Minnesota doesn’t have dinosaurs’’ and they were all being found out in the West, Westgaard said. However, he started doing some research and soon found a picture on the Science Museum wall of the duck-billed dinosaur that was found in Crow Wing County in a river deposit. He was able to see the sample and was surprised to see it was collected in Crow Wing County, where he was born and where he spends all of his summers on the Cuyuna Iron Range.

“My first thought was ‘My God I was probably running up and down all those dump piles and ran right over a dinosaur bone and I never knew it,’ ’’ he said. “That’s kind of where the Hill Annex Paleo Project started with me tracking down what is really in Minnesota.’’

While the Iron Range was once not associated with dinosaurs, Westgaard knew the area had to be investigated based on the Western Interior Seaway, which flooded the center of North America from about 100 million to 68 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period (from 145 to 66 million years ago). That put western portions of Minnesota under water, while northeastern Minnesota was just on the edge of the seaway.

Fossils in this area have been known about for around 140 years, but there have only been two dozen scientific papers done in that time for the eastern landmass known as Appalachia, Westgaard said.

For the western landmass known as Laramidia, there have been 200 papers written every year about dinosaur finds. That includes the Hell Creek Formation in Montana and Wyoming, he added.

“What we know about the Coleraine formation up here in Minnesota is very scant. It needs a ton more work.’’ Part of the importance is this is what North America kind of looked like 90 million years ago, Westgaard said. “This is where we get sharks (teeth have been found at Hll Annex) because Minnesota is right on the edge of that seaway and actually at some point about 90 million years ago we could be standing in the ocean or standing on the beach or we could be standing just off shore.’’

The result was that all of the fossils sit right on top of the iron formation, according to Westgaard, but they sit right below the glacial sand and gravel. Ultimately they are from 50-150 feet below the surface, which does not allow for digging that deep.

“But they’re right in the way of mining which is going for the iron ore down below,’’ he added. “Only because of open pit iron mining have we been able to access the suite of fossils we can find up here.’’

Regarding Appalachia, “we don’t hear a lot about the dinosaurs at all.’’ There have been several discoveries along the Eastern Seaboard and a few along the Gulf Coast in the last 10 years. At the same time, there has been just one in Iowa and another in Missouri, according to Westgaard.

“Otherwise, this whole corner of Appalachia is darkness,’’ he said, “besides what’s been printed in 12 or 15 papers in 100-plus years.’’

Westgaard said what the Paleontology Project “can do is help shed a light on another corner of this continent and perhaps fill in gaps on what was living on our side of the seaway.’’ He is confident more dinosaur fossils will be found in the area. “They’ve always been there and more come out every year because mining hasn’t stopped and we’re way behind. We’ve been doing it for eight years and mining has a 100 year head start.’’

Further evidence that Appalachia (including the Iron Range) was on the eastern edge of the Western Interior Seaway, is shark teeth fossils that have been unearthed. “We find a whole number of different ones,’’ said Westgaard. Only two months ago, some of the shark teeth examples found at Hill Annex were shared with a worldwide shark fossil expert from Depaul University.

“He’s very certain that we have a new species of shark in our collection already that has not been described. We’re anticipating in the next two years there will be an official scientific paper’’ on it.

Westgaard would like to see the new shark species named after Minnesota or Mesabi “so we can have a Minnesota shark forever.’’ Such a naming would be significant. “That’s exactly what we’re aiming for,’’ he said.

Being near the Western Interior Seaway, has also led to fossilized ammonites, part of a crocodile that was up to 20-feet long, fossilized shark poop and a plesiosaur bone from what was a marine reptile being found at Hill Annex. The plesiosaur bone was found by a citizen during a public tour and donated to the Paleo Project in 1985. Other citizens are donating their collections from the area, as well.

The findings all further define what the project is all about.

“That’s part of our mission, the Hill Annex Paleo Project, is just to describe more fully all the different types of plants and animals that existed during this time.’’

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Now several years into the project, Westgaard and those working on the project are settling in.

“We should be up to 20,000 fossils counted by the end of the year.’’ Certain fossils will be permanent numbers and they will start being put on display.

“The field season’s not over yet,’’ said Westgaard, who wants to get as much out of the ground as he can before winter sets in. The freeze/thaw cycle could have notable fossils in 100 pieces by April if they are still in the ground.

In addition to research, writing papers, cleaning fossils and organizing, the winter is also spent going to schools and talking about paleontology, holding public lectures and preparing for the March and summer Fossil Days. The Paleontology Project will also have an exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair DNR building for the next two years

“When the snow goes away, we’ll be back scratching at the dirt.’’

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