Montana Earth Science Picture of the Week

Paleontologists Hit Jackpot near Malta, Montana

Photos courtesy of Judith River Dinosaur Institute in Malta, Montana

Since the mid-nineties, several world-class duckbilled dinosaurs have been discovered in the Malta area. Duckbilled dinosaurs (hadrosaurs) are named for their duckbill-like lips that were used to strip leaves off of branches. There are several types, including the Maiasaura (good mother lizard) discovered at Egg Mountain near Choteau in 1979. The duckbilled dinosaurs discovered in the Malta area are a type called Brachylophosaura.

1. The first discovery, called “Elvis”, is now on display at the Phillips County Museum on Highway #2 in Malta. Elvis was discoved in 1992 by Nate Murphy, the Phillips County Museum's Curator of Paleontology. The 32-foot brachylophosaurus was given the name Elvis because of its "pristine pelvis".

2. The second dinosaur (shown in the photo above and below), called “Roberta”, is currently at the “Dinosaur Field Station’ just down the street from the museum. The field station is a lab where the specimens are prepared for display and/or molding. By making molds of the bones, replicas can be produced for viewing in several museums. Scientists think that Roberta may have died as a resault of a broken jaw that became infected.

3. Although both Elvis and Roberta are terrific specimens, the third dinosaur discovery has been stealing the spotlight. “Leonardo, the Mummy Dinosaur” is one of only four dinosaur specimens in the world with fossilized skin and muscle. When the young dinosaur died 77 million years ago, rare natural conditions combined to preserve its soft tissues in great detail, including its stomach contents! In fact pollen from its digestive tract tell what it ate in its last days. Leonardo’s tendons, muscles, and skin were naturally preserved and mineralized unlike other fossils whose softer tissues decompose before turning to stone. Some scientists are calling Leonardo "the fossil find of the century" and it is now recognized by Guiness as the "world's best preserved dinosaur". Like Roberta, Leonardo can be viewed at the field station where a guided tour costs $5.

4. The forth discovery, a “baby dinosaur” called “Peanut” was also brought to the field station last summer.

All of the Phillips County dinosaurs were excavated by the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, which is supported by the Judith River Foundation. The non-profit foundation was established by Nate Murphy in 2002 to recover, prepare, and display local dinosaur treasures. If it weren’t for the efforts of Murphy (shown in photos) and the foundation, it is likely that the dinosaurs found in this area would have ended up in museums far from Malta. Instead their presence will certainly provide a boost to the economy of this the small Hi-Line community. The Foundation is named for the Judith River Formation, a series of rock layers deposited over 65 million years ago near the edge of a shallow sea that inundated the Great Plains.

An Unfortunate Turn of Events: Update May 2009 . . .
Unfortunately Nate Murphy is no longer associated with the Judith River Dinosaur Institute. In May of 2009 he was sentenced to to jail (60 days) for stealing a raptor fossil from private land in the Malta area. Sentencing in a separate federal case involving Murphy's theft of several more fossils is scheduled for later this summer (in July 2009). The lesson to be learned here is that fossils found on private land belong to the land owner, those found on federal land (BLM, National Forrest, etc.) belong to the federal government, and those found on state land belong to the state of Montana.

Nate Murphy with Roberta in the "field station"

Update: The June 27, 2005 issue of Newsweek featured a great story about Montana's wealth of dinosaur finds, inlcuding quite a bit about the work of Nate Murphy in the Malta area.

Terms: paleontology, curator


*More about Leonardo
*The Judith River Dinosaur Institute
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By Rod Benson
Earth Science Teacher at Helena High School