Image: Croc fossils
The teeth and scutes from a 60-million-year-old crocodile fossil. Researchers are hoping a large cache of ancient crocodile bones in western North Dakota will yield the state's first complete croc skeleton.
updated 9/18/2008 10:45:49 AM ET 2008-09-18T14:45:49

Researchers are hoping a large cache of ancient crocodile bones in western North Dakota will yield the state's first complete croc skeleton.

"In all the years we've been working out there, we've never found a complete crocodile skeleton," said state paleontologist John Hoganson, of the North Dakota Geological Survey. "It's one of the things we'd like to find, for sure."

Crocodiles lived in what is now North Dakota about 60 million years ago. Many bones and teeth have been unearthed through the years, but never a complete crocodile to put on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

This summer, participants in a public fossil dig on U.S. Forest Service land in southwestern North Dakota found bones and a skull, Hoganson said. They also found preserved crocodile tracks.

"You can actually see the footprints of this crocodile walking across what would have been a silty mud surface," he said.

The ancient crocodiles were similar to those that live in warm climates today, Hoganson said. One big difference is that they would have been at the top of the food chain 60 million years ago, after the demise of the dinosaur, he said.

Geological Survey paleontologist Jeff Person said crocodile fossils are common, but "finding a complete skeleton would be a little more rare anywhere in the world."

The site west of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was discovered several years ago by officials from the Science Museum of Minnesota who no longer are researching the area, said Larry Melvin, a minerals program manager for the Forest Service's Dakota Prairie Grasslands office.

"Any time you go into a spot like that ... we're always hopeful that we can find a totally articulated skeleton," Melvin said.

This summer was the first time Geological Survey officials worked at the site, Hoganson said. The Geological Survey, the Forest Service and the Marmarth Research Foundation sponsored the public dig.

"There are so many fossil bones there — it's a site we'll return to for several years," Hoganson said. "We're hoping we'll find a complete crocodile skeleton at some point. We're kind of pumped about this."

Under terms of the permit the state Geological Survey has with the Forest Service to excavate on property controlled by the federal agency, whatever is found goes into the state fossil collection, which is housed at the Heritage Center on the state Capitol grounds.

"It's public property, not just of the Forest Service," Melvin said.

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