Has any creature, living or dead, truly captivated the world in the way that dinosaurs have? Ever since our rediscovery of these great beasts, both science and popular culture have grown enamored with the mere thought of their existence: we fill museums with their bones, make movies about them, and even try to dress like them come Halloween.
But what if everything we thought we knew about our beloved dinosaurs turned out to be wrong? When one paleontologist began excavating a dig site in the mountains of North Dakota, he soon discovered a lost piece of dinosaur history that may change everything we thought we knew about the creatures that once ruled the world.
Most people would consider a preoccupation with bones concerning, though Robert DePalma’s love of the dead and buried is anything but peculiar. An aspiring paleontologist, the 37-year-old managed to turn his lifelong passion into a curator position for the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History.
Robert DePalma / Facebook
But DePalma is perhaps best known for the widely publicized discovery he made near Bowman, North Dakota, in 2012. After receiving a tip from a private fossil collector, DePalma and his team began excavating a site along the well-known Hell Creek Formation.
Initially, DePalma felt the site, dubbed “Tanis,” had little promise, something the collector had made him privy to prior to the excavation. However, after returning to Tanis in 2013, the paleontologist discovered there was more to this unassuming patch of rock than met the eye.
Robert DePalma / Facebook
Just a few meters below the surface, DePalma discovered a host of rare and unusual fossils, including those of species he claimed to have never seen before. It was an incredible find, though one set of bones in particular caught DePalma’s eye — and left him positively stumped.
Sciene Channel / Twitter
Beneath the skeleton of a freshwater paddlefish, DePalma discovered the tooth of a mosasaur, an enormous reptilian predator that made its home in the oceans of the Early Cretaceous period. This puzzled DePalma and his team, for there was no way this creature could’ve existed in the fresh waters of prehistoric North Dakota.
The layout of the find was also unusual, the fossils deposited haphazardly and some skeletons even buried vertically in the dirt. Combined with the fact that tektites — small bits of natural glass created from meteor impacts — were also present, everyone was left scratching their head.
Then, a lightbulb went off: could the tektite fragments found in the Tanis deposit have been scattered here by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs? While some researchers would be quick to accept such a theory, the plausibility of this scenario isn’t exactly cut and dry.
The widely held belief that an asteroid impact caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event is primarily based on the presence of the KT layer. This 66-million-year-old band of earth stretches over nearly the entire globe and contains a high level of iridium, an element primarily found in asteroids.
This theory is also supported by the Chicxulub crater, a 112-mile impression in the Yucatan Peninsula that contains the same mineral make-up as the KT layer. Therefore, most scientists assume that the asteroid that created this crater scattered the iridium debris that ultimately wiped out the dinosaurs.
The Silver Ink
If this were the case, then, one would expect to find plenty of fossils in the KT layer: after all, it was during this time that nearly all life on Earth went extinct. However, this actually isn’t true at all — hardly any fossils have ever been found in this layer of rock.
In fact, most fossils are found about ten feet below the KT layer, which, geologically speaking, would amount to thousands of years between the death of these creatures and the fateful asteroid impact. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that an extraterrestrial object reduced every last dinosaur to rubble.
Proponents of this alternate theory do still believe that an asteroid impact finished off the last of these prehistoric creatures, though they propose that factors like large-scale volcanic activity and climate change had already wiped out most of the dinosaurs by this point.
However, according to DePalma, the Tanis find was the key to finally putting this debate to bed. Not only were the fossils he discovered located within the KT layer, but their haphazard placement suggested they were deposited here just moments after the asteroid struck.
Robert DePalma / Facebook
With this information in mind, DePalma posited that the mile-high tsunamis created by the impact must’ve traveled up river valleys and into freshwater bodies, which is how the mosasaur tooth came to be here. This was big news.
Eager to share his discovery with the world, DePalma sat down with The New Yorker to share the exclusive details of his historic find. However, as soon as the story broke in April 2019, the paleontology community grew outraged.
Many of DePalma’s colleagues were upset that the paleontologist had chosen to share his story with The New Yorker instead of a reputable scientific journal. DePalma later published his discovery in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, though many felt this account was significantly less detailed than his New Yorker piece.
Even prior to this, however, DePalma was considered by some to be a controversial figure in the world of paleontology. In 2015, he introduced a new species of dinosaur he’d recovered from the Hell Creek Formation dubbed Dakotaraptor, though after presenting the completed skeleton, it was discovered one of the bones belonged to a turtle.
DePalma also stirred up controversy with his business practices, as he retains all control of his specimens even after they’ve been placed in museums and university collections. He also reportedly funds his field work by creating replicas of his finds and selling them to private collectors.
Robert DePalma / Facebook
But the strangest discrepancy of all may be DePalma’s record of the discovery itself. While the paleontologist and his team have made claims about the large number of dinosaur fossils uncovered near the surface of the Tanis deposit, his article in PNAS only mentions one example in a supplementary document.
The San Diego Union-Tribune
As of now, additional papers on Tanis are being prepared that will hopefully clear up the confusion surrounding DePalma’s find. Until then, one can only wonder if DePalma’s discovery will truly change history or simply wind up as the fabrication of another would-be hero in search of fame and glory.
FallonCohen / Imgur
For David Bradt, however, the discovery he made while out hunting was certainly the real deal. The Montana man was only hoping to return from his hunting trip with something to show for it, but he never could’ve anticipated he was about to make history.
One November afternoon, Bradt ventured into Montana’s Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge hoping to bag an elk. While he was prepared for a hunt, he never imagined the creature he would find.
Allen Russell Photography
Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on David’s side that day. He hadn’t seen an elk all afternoon, so he decided to walk over to a nearby spring to take a break.
David approached the water’s edge to splash some cool water on his face when he noticed something sticking out from the rocks. Rather than return to his futile hunt, he bent down to investigate.
Based on a life of outdoor experience, Bradt assumed that he had spotted some petrified wood. But when he took a closer look, he realized that it was something much different.
Utah Geological Survey
He found a bone! He assumed that it was probably just from a dead elk or a bighorn sheep that called the refuge home, but something about it didn’t seem right.
David was an avid outdoorsman, but this bone was out of his depth. He notified both wildlife services and the paleontology department of a local museum before reaching out to some unlikely experts for help.
Museum of the Rockies
He called his children! Like most kids, Kellen and Garrison loved dinosaurs. They immediately wanted to get involved and help their dad get to the bottom of this mysterious discovery.
The trio began to clear dirt away from the bone, but something unusual happened: they just kept revealing more and more bone. Eventually they had to go home for the night, making sure to keep the site secret.
The size was beginning to send David’s mind racing. Bones this large had to belong to something massive. “It’s about the size of a cow.” Given how large the bone was, it was getting tough to keep the site secret.
But why did they have to keep the spot hidden? Rare fossils are quite valuable and can attract robbers looking for a quick buck. But there was something else significant about the site…
One hundred million years ago, the entire region was one giant mud pit on the bottom of an inland sea. That meant the creature, despite being found in the middle of Montana, was likely aquatic.
Scientists initially suspected the bone belonged to a mosasaurus, a giant predatory creature that most resembled a lizard mixed with a whale. As the excavation continued, however, they came to realize they were looking at something else.
Their next best guess was a plesiosaur, similar to the mythical Loch Ness monster. Once again, however, the bones didn’t seem to match up. Without a clear hypothesis, all scientists could do was keep digging.
More dirt was washed away and, eventually, the scientists started dissolving the rock in order to remove the bones. When the work was done, they unearthed an unusual looking skull.
It was a dinosaur skull! Rather than a traditionally shaped cranium, this one looked more like a big cat or alligator. There was also an unusually large tail wrapped around the mass of bones. Outside help was necessary.
The bones were sent to scientists at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks for analysis. They too, thought the skeleton was similar to a plesiosaur, except for one defining difference.
Plesiosaurs are known for their long, serpentine necks, and this skeleton was lacking that feature. Eventually the scientists reached an undeniable conclusion: this was something new and deadly.
After further study, experts concluded the skeleton belonged to an elasmosaurus, a variant of plesiosaur. Its neck contained fewer vertebrae than average, however, only measuring seven feet long rather than the usual 18 feet.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Scientists actually weren’t sure what was going on. They had never seen a plesiosaur with this short of a neck before. They were able to come up with one working theory, however…
This species, the short-necked elasmosaur, was an undiscovered evolutionary variant of the larger dinosaur. Similar to giraffes and okapis, it appeared that two similar species were roaming the sea at the same time.
Bradt’s discovery just goes to show that finding buried treasure isn’t something that only happens in the movies. In fact, a construction worker operating in Canada found something that people would love to see go toe-to-toe with Brandt’s plesiosaur.
It was any old Monday for Shawn Funk, who was working for the energy company Suncor. He was manning the backhoe in Millennium Mine, located about 17 miles north of Fort McMurrary in Alberta, Canada.
Suncor Energy / YouTube
Suncor was tasked with mining crude oil deep within the mine. Shawn used his machine to excavate through layers of sand that was once rich with marine plants and animals from hundreds of millions of years ago.
Since that distant time, the plants and animals have died and settled to the bottom of the previously existing ocean. Add a little heat and pressure overtime, and the once living organisms turned into hydrocarbons. Crude oil.
Due to the nature of this biological process, Shawn rarely ran into anything other than sand and oil on the job. Which was why, when Shawn returned to work after taking a lunch break, he found it odd the backhoe was humming a different tune.
Suncor Energy / YouTube
In his 12 years of work, he had only ever ran into petrified tree stumps, so he could tell by the very different sound that his machine was striking something different. It was something much harder than both the sand and native rock in the area.
North Dakota Studies
Immediately pulling his backhoe up from the earth, Shawn dumped the contents of the excavator out in front of him. Odd looking light-brown colored lumps spilled out onto the ground. He flipped some pieces over and noticed rows of gray disks…
Suncor Energy / YouTube
In that moment, Shawn knew he needed to stop digging and call someone immediately. Suncor executives called Royal Tyrrell Museum, who quickly realized that Shawn stumbled upon something very rare. The museum flew out two technicians to the site.
Suncor Energy / YouTube
The team was able to locate the large mass that these unusual chunks came from, and from there, Suncor excavators and museum technicians spent 12 hours chipping away at the estimated 15,000-pound rock mass.
Suncor Energy / YouTube
They were finally able to free the rock accretion and lift it from the earth. As they lowered it down to level ground, the 7.5 ton mass fell to the ground and shattered revealing a paleontologist’s paradise…
Suncor Energy / YouTube
They’d found the remains of a prehistoric organism! The museum technicians inspected the mystery creature’s shattered remains and put them back together like a puzzle.
When they finished a rough re-assemblage of the creature it highly resembled a realistic, nine-foot tall dinosaur! But the truly remarkable thing about this discovery was that they weren’t looking at a fossil of bones. In fact, there were no bones visible at all: they were seeing bony scutes and plates — the dinosaur was entirely petrified.
Thousands of questions flooded the minds of the museum technicians. How was this dinosaur fossilized so well that it was basically mummified? They were dying to figure out the story of this rare find.
The pieces of the petrified dinosaur were taken back to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology for tests and research, where it was discovered the creature lived about 110 million years ago! The dinosaur was very clearly an armored plant-eater, similar to those found in western Canada.
Scientists placed the creature in the genus Ankylosaurus. It’s believed that it died in western Canada and got transported by a massive flood where it ended up at the bottom of a pre-historic ocean.
A full reconstruction of the herbivore revealed it was four-legged, armor-plated dinosaur covered in spikes with a long tail most-likely covered in spikes to fend off predators — a brand new species called a called Nodosaur!
In its petrified state, the Nodosaur weighs about 2,500 pounds, and it’s believed that when alive, it weighed about 3,000 pounds. The Nodosaur would have been a fairly solitary creature 100 millions years ago.
Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology
It’s miraculous the behemoth’s body remained so intact after such a rough and long distance journey. As of 2019, how this occurred was still a mystery to scientists, but it had to have happened quickly because the dinosaur laid undisturbed for millions of years while it was covered by the substrate.
Because of its pristine condition, scientists were able to use modern scans to get a glimpse inside the dinosaur’s hard exoskeleton. They saw the bone structure and even some internal workings of the beast’s stomach. That’s how well preserved this find was.
Researchers from the museum and around the world worked for six years and for over 7,000 hours to test, preserve, and prepare the remains of this precious find. The Nodosaur is on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum for those wishing to get a look at the closest thing to a real dinosaur.
In early 2019, scientists were still studying the Nodosaur and its scans to continue to learn about dinosaurs in general, as nothing like this had ever been found before. However, not far away, archeologists made a discovery that rivaled that of the Nodosaur.
See, the Heiltsuk people, the First Nation indigenous to British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, have laid claim to the remote Triquet Island for nearly 5,000 years. But archaeologists have dismissed their claim of ownership for one glaring reason…
Simon Fraser University
The continental glacier that formed over Canada during the last Ice Age would’ve also covered Triquet Island, making it uninhabitable. But even with the facts stacked against the Heiltsuk, a small group of researchers took it upon themselves to uncover the truth once and for all.
The Robinson Library
The archaeologists began an extensive excavation of the remote island in the hope of discovering traces of a past civilization. What they found there not only shocked the entire archaeological community, but it also changed history forever.
Beneath several layers of earth, they found remnants of an ancient, wood-burning hearth. But how could this be? According to researchers, it would’ve been impossible for humans to dig their way through the glacial ice to get to the soil below.
As they continued digging, researchers unearthed additional artifacts, including tools and weapons. This discovery stumped the team as the Heiltsuk people traditionally didn’t use tools of this kind.
The Heiltsuk people had derived their food source from fishing and smoking salmon, utilizing small, precise tools to harvest the fish. The tools and weapons found were much larger and likely would’ve been used to hunt large sea mammals, such as seals, sea lions, and walruses.
What’s more, the team also uncovered shards of obsidian, a glass-like rock only found in areas of heavy volcanic activity. This discovery also puzzled the archaeologists, as there were no known volcanoes near that part of British Columbia. So, how did this rock — and these people — get there?
The historians deduced that whoever left these artifacts must have traversed the land bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska during prehistoric times. Yet researchers still needed cold-hard facts…
Luckily, a closer inspection of the hearth revealed ancient charcoal remains, which the archaeologists quickly brought to the lab for carbon dating. When they received the results, the researchers couldn’t believe their eyes: everything they knew was a lie.
According to the carbon dating report, these bits of charcoal were an astonishing 14,000 years old, making them the oldest carbon remains ever to be discovered in North America.
Even by global standards, this was an extraordinary find. After all, these simple pieces of charcoal were older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even predated the invention of the wheel! But that’s not the most remarkable fact about this discovery.
The 14,000-year-old discovery placed the earliest Heiltsuk at Triquet Island 2,000 years before the end of the ice age. Therefore, the island couldn’t have been covered by the massive continental glacier. And that’s not all.
Since Triquet Island was surrounded on all sides by water, the early Heiltsuk would’ve used boats to traverse the open waters. Boats, however, were not believed to have been invented until centuries later.
This meant that the Heiltsuk settled the area 2,000 years before initially believed. If this was the case, then these early men likely crossed paths with some of history’s most formidable beasts.
As the Heiltsuk people made their way south from the land bridge, they likely had to fend off giant creatures like mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant sloths. But somehow, these humans survived, and it’s likely for one crucial reason.
Thanks to the Pacific Ocean itself, the sea level at Triquet Island remained constant for over 15,000 years. So as the sea gradually eroded the surrounding islands, the great beasts of the Pacific Northwest were kept at bay, leaving the Heiltsuk to a peaceful, secluded existence.
The most astounding realization that’s come to light is the fact that the Heiltsuk people were able to preserve their history orally for nearly 14,000 years. However, they are still being deprived of their history’s legitimacy.
When the media caught wind of the story, they seemed to focus more on what the discovery meant for the scientific community rather than acknowledge the rich history of the Heiltsuk. To many, the media’s portrayal of the nation was seen as highly disrespectful.
As a result, University of Victoria student Alisha Gauvreau — who was present during the excavation — has dedicated herself to shifting the focus of the dialogue toward the Heiltsuk people.
The Heiltsuk claim to Triquet Island stands as one of the oldest land-ownership claims in the world. Not only does this discovery speak volumes about the strength of the Heiltsuk people, but it also represents the indomitable spirit of mankind.
kris krüg / Flickr