Fossil finder Marion Brandvold digs roaming the ancient coastal plane that is now Montana
BYNUM - The "Closed" sign at Marion Brandvold's business in this tiny northcentral Montana town includes this curious notation: "Gone Dino Hunting."
It's not a joke.
Whenever that sign was out during the 34 years that she's operated Trex Agate Shop in the old Catholic church beside Montana Highway 89, it's a good bet Marion was hunting dinosaur fossils in the nearby hills.
And the hunting has been exceptional.
Bynum (population 19), located just north of the relative metropolis of Choteau (population 897), is situated on the eastern edge of a geologic structure known as the Two Medicine Formation, a slab of sedimentary rock 2,000 feet thick. It was laid down over a period of 12 million years, between 84 and 72 million years ago, toward the end of the geologic age called the Cretaceous period.
The layers of sandstone, shale and mudstone in the Two Medicine Formation preserve 12 million years of life on what was a 200-mile wide coastal plain, sandwiched between two inland seas. The formation covers 3,600 square miles, stretching from the Canadian border on the north to the town of Augusta on the south, and from the spine of the Rocky Mountains on the west to Choteau on the east.
Roaming that ancient coastal plain, like herds of bison that thrived in the same location millions of years later, were a rich variety of dinosaurs in vast numbers. Here and there, where erosion exposes parts of the Two Medicine formation, those dinosaurs reappear in the present in fossil form.
Marion found her first dinosaur fossil when she was 5 years old while accompanying her family and neighboring ranchers on a cattle roundup in the prairie and badlands about five miles west of Bynum.
"I was allowed to go with them that day," Marion recalls. "It was our turn to use the dipping vats for the cattle. It was a community affair. But I was not allowed to get in with the main bunch cutting out cattle. I was told by the foreman to go find some rocks.
"When we got back home, here I had my pockets full of rocks. I said to the foreman, 'Would you like to see my rocks?'
He says 'Sure. Those are pretty. I think you have a fossil here.'
I says 'What's a fossil?'
He says 'It probably came from a big elephant that used to live around here and that died out a long time ago.' "
In the 85 years since that day, she hasn't stopped hunting dinos.
"I like to hunt rocks, dinosaur bones, petrified wood, obsidian that the Indians brought in to make arrowheads," says Marion. "I used to ride fence on the ranch and look for bones and rocks. I found a very fine buffalo jump that's one of the best here in Montana."
In 1978, a short horseback ride from the ranch her parents and grandparents homesteaded, Marion made a discovery that revolutionized the world of paleontology and made a place called Egg Mountain famous to dinosaur fans around the world. Her find also would ultimately be the foundation of the reputation built by Montana's most esteemed paleontologist, Jack Horner.
In 1977 Marion and her son David Trexler - who she says "was out hunting dinosaurs before he could walk" - found a layer of dinosaur bones that appeared to be from a single animal. Trexler's ambition, from the time he was a tot, was to assemble a complete dinosaur skeleton to display in his mother's rock shop.
"Every weekend we'd go up and preserve what was there," says Trexler. "It turned out to be a duckbill dinosaur. We were up there one day in the spring of 1978 working on that and mother headed back to the car. When I came up, here's mother sitting on this little knoll, her eyes just shining and a big smile on her face. She said, 'Guess what I found.' We knew right away they were baby dinosaurs."
"What we didn't know," adds Trexler's wife Laurie, "was that nobody else had them."
"We picked the pieces up," Marion says, "and brought them home. Dave got out a card table and started gluing these little bones together."
Then fate stepped in.
Jack Horner, a native of Shelby and a dinosaur buff who was on vacation from his job as a fossil preparator (preparing fossils for exhibit) in the paleontology department at Princeton University, while on a chance detour through Bynum, walked into Marion's agate shop on a Sunday morning in July of 1978.
He was able to classify some of the fossils she had for sale in her shop. Pleased, Marion invited Horner to take a look at some bones she had in her house.
"It was immediately obvious to me," he writes in his 1988 book "Digging Dinosaurs," "that it was the hip end of a duckbill thighbone and a bit of rib - except that they were the wrong size. … What I had in my hand was a bone from a baby dinosaur, a duckbill - exactly what I wanted, in a place I never expected to find it. And it wasn't the only one."
Marion took Horner to the location of her discovery. After further excavation of the site by a team under Horner's direction, including the discovery by Laurie Trexler of an adult duckbill, the importance of Marion's discovery became evident.
Horner wrote in "Digging Dinosaurs":
"This was the first time anyone had found a nest not of eggs but of baby dinosaurs, and the evidence seemed to me incontrovertible that these babies had to have stayed in that nest while they were growing and that one or more parents had cared for them. This kind of behavior, unheard of in dinosaurs, was probably the most startling discovery to come out of that dig. Certainly it was the one that had the greatest effect on the public image of dinosaurs, because it was in such severe contrast to the image of how dinosaurs were supposed to behave - laying eggs and leaving them, like turtles or lizards or most reptiles. If dinosaurs, even just some species of dinosaurs, had acted like birds and reared their young in nests, caring for them and bringing them food, this was a bit of information that would profoundly change our sense of what sort of creatures these ancient reptiles were. It was a revelation."
The dinosaur babies and adult that Marion and her son and daughter-in-law discovered were a previously unknown species. Horner christened it Maiasaura peeblesorum. The second part of the name honors the landowners on whose ranch the nest was found - the Peebles family. The first part of the Greek name means "good mother lizard."
The discovery and his published theories launched Horner on a career that led to advising Stephen Spielburg in the early '90s on the production of the blockbuster movie "Jurassic Park," and to his position as curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
His theories on dinosaur behavior have become the accepted doctrine of paleontology. Further exploration of the area of Marion's discovery by Horner yielded the bonanza of Egg Mountain, an unimpressive, rocky, eroded nubbin of a hill few miles west of Choteau, that was a nesting area for duckbill dinosaurs that raised their young in a colony reminiscent of penguins nesting on the coast of Antarctica.
Horner estimated that the bone bed surrounding Egg Mountain contained the fossil remains of 10,000 maiasaurs, plant eaters that grew to a length of 30 feet.
Horner acknowledges Marion and her family in his book, credits them for their discoveries, and thanks them for their cooperation.
"Marion Brandvold had discovered a lovely little window on the late Cretaceous," he writes. "What we did was to open that window and climb through it."
But Marion has been troubled about her discovery and its aftermath.
Publicity about the discovery brought hoards of people to Egg Mountain to hunt for dinosaur bones. The Peebles were forced to sell that part of their ranch to the Nature Conservancy to protect the valuable resource. Marion hasn't felt comfortable going back to her old stomping grounds there ever since.
In fact, she says, she hasn't "set foot" on Egg Mountain for 10 or 12 years.
"Egg Mountain was one of the places I used to hunt a lot," she says. "It was a real fun thing up 'til then. I miss it a lot."
Marion and other local residents also resented the fact that the dinosaur fossils that they'd helped discover, and that brought a kind of celebrity status to Choteau, were mostly being shipped to elite out-of-state museums for study.
"When Jack took those bones …," she says, "I never gave anybody anything. But I was talked into loaning them for studying. That was a mistake for what's become of the bones so far. They went to Princeton and then Yale.
"What has hurt me is the fact that this find caused my friends a lot of heartbreak. They were an old-time ranch couple. They inherited the ranch. All I'm saying is, the consequence of this find is the folks sold this part of their ranch because of all the publicity, and folks running all over the place at all hours of the day and night at Egg Mountain."
"It goes right down to this: I told Jack I'd loan those bones to him. I says 'How long do you need to study them?'"
He says 'Probably 20 years.'
'Then you'll bring them back to me?'
He says 'Yes.' "
A couple of years ago Marion and her husband John Brandvold filed suit against Horner and Yale University, asking that the baby dinosaur fossils Marion found in 1978 be returned to Montana and her ownership of them publicly acknowledged.
Horner says he can't comment on the bones because of the pending lawsuit.
"I don't have any control over them," he says. "I never claimed to own them."
The fossils are in the museum collection of Yale University, according to Horner.
John Brandvold, Marion's husband, says the lawsuit could be easily resolved.
"We've asked that the bones be returned to Montana and put into the Museum of the Rockies on loan from Marion," Brandvold says. "They're definitely not for sale. We don't want the money. Marion will donate them to the Museum of the Rockies if they meet our conditions. We'd like a ceremony at the Museum of the Rockies when the bones are shipped back and acknowledgment of her ownership. Jack's afraid Marion will sell them. But they're for the public. Yale don't need 'em. Montana does. We need all the help we can get."
The Brandvolds have always sold fossils in their agate shop, including some they found in the vicinity of Egg Mountain, a practice considered unethical by professional paleontologists. Now, however, they sell only fossils they purchase from other vendors at rock and mineral shows around the country.
"They don't sell any scientifically significant fossils," says David Trexler. "Mother has evolved. She originally thought it was just a hobby. But all she's told me is she wanted the bones she found to come back to Montana. They don't belong buried in somebody's file cabinet half-way across the continent from where they were found."
Horner's theories about dinosaur behavior that evolved following Marion's 1978 discovery may have been a revelation in the science of paleontology, but in Marion's eyes, the idea that dinosaurs cared for their young was just a matter of common sense.
She and David and Laurie Trexler remember her having a conversation about that with Horner when she first showed him the nest of babies.
"I was standing on top of the nest," says David Trexler, "and mother and Jack were sitting there arguing about it. It was very clear: Jack was a traditionally trained paleontologist, well indoctrinated in the idea that dinosaurs were cold-blooded animals that laid their eggs and walked away. Mother, on the other hand, noted that there were remains of more than one animal there.
"She said that these babies have some size to them, which means one of two things: either they'd have to leave the nest to find food, or someone has to bring them something to eat. Mother said, 'Don't you see? There are the babies. They're in a nest. Their mother had to care for them.' Mother's first words, when she found it, were 'We got us a nest. Here's the babies and here's mother's bones sitting right beside it.' "
The presence of the bones of an adult dinosaur next to the nest reminded her of something, Marion says.
"There was that big bone there," she says. "So I figured the mother was there somewhere, too. It was just natural. Well, put it this way: I was raised on a ranch. My mother raised turkeys and chickens. One time we had baby ducks. Of course your wild birds took care of everything for the babies. These little guys (the baby dinosaurs) were big enough to eat by themselves, but not big enough to leave the nest. They were like baby chicks."
According to David, Horner initially dismissed Marion's theory.
"He said, 'That's not possible. These animals are just like crocodiles,' " says Trexler.
It was the next year, when Horner identified the maiasaurus as a new species in a magazine article, before he announced his radical new theory.
Horner says he has no recollection of that conversation with Marion.
"I certainly don't," Horner says. "That's certainly an interesting take on it. We didn't know it was a nest. There was no way to know that. We had no idea what kinds of things we had then. First it had to be excavated and prepared. The only way to tell it was a nest was after all the data was compiled. That took about six months."
No matter how her conflict with Horner over the dinosaur bones comes out, Marion says, it won't be the measure of her life.
"I've had a good life, without a doubt," she says.
And she's still going strong at age 90.
Diminutive, white-haired and sharp-featured, her deep-set eyes seem almost black. And like a bird's, they seem to be always alert and searching.
She still moves with a sureness that's surprisingly nimble, attesting to an active life.
"To tell you the truth," she says, "until I broke my hip a couple of years ago, I used to run everywhere."
When she was a child, a regular visitor at her family's ranch was a young cowboy named Charlie Russell. Unfortunately, Marion says, her mother burned a treasure-trove of correspondence from Russell, including numerous sketches by the acclaimed artist.
As a young woman, she rode rough stock in the rodeos alongside the top men in the region. She was known as one of the state's best riders in endurance horse racing. She still owns a black stallion and three black mares that keep her busy with "chores."
And she had more than a taste of sophistication back East.
"I had family in Cincinnati," Marion says. "I was drug away from here off and on, starting when I was about 9 years old, to go to school. Occasionally, I took trips back. I married well in Cincinnati."
While in the East, Marion says, she became a nationally recognized exhibition ballroom dancer for seven or eight years, starting when she was 13.
"I was on call at the big hotels in Florida and New York," she says. "I danced vaudeville one year in Cincinnati, too."
She and her dance partner were once offered a movie role that eventually went to the as yet undiscovered Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, according to Marion.
It was a glamorous life, but Montana, she says, always called her back home.
She and her first husband, the late "Trex" Trexler, shared a passion for outdoor activities - hunting, fishing, camping, rockhounding and hunting dinosaurs. She's operated Trex Agate Shop for 65 years - selling artifacts, rocks, jewelry and common fossils - first near Great Falls and later in Bynum.
After her big find in 1978, she and David and John Brandvold, bought and operated the Old Trail Museum in Choteau, exhibiting their fabulous collection of dinosaur fossils. Later, they converted the museum to a nonprofit organization, and sold it to the city's museum board, donating most of the exhibits.
In 1995, at the age of 40, David Trexler realized a lifelong dream when he received a graduate degree in paleontology from the University of Calgary.
He and Laurie operate Timescale Adventures, a nonprofit paleontology research and education facility, in Bynum. He also works at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a museum in Thermopolis, Wyo., commuting back and forth flying his own tiny airplane.
Timescale Adventures offers field seminars, from three hours to 10 days, for people who want to have the experience of prospecting, excavating, collecting and preserving dinosaur fossils. The seminars are conducted on private land in the Rocky Mountain Front near Choteau and Bynum.
David Trexler and his assistants are in the process of excavating an exciting dinosaur discovery, which includes a site that has very complete fossil remains of eight separate dinosaurs - five duckbills and three tyrannosaurs - stacked in an area only about 8 feet wide and 15 feet long.
About 300 people a year participate in Timescale Adventures' field seminars, David says. The staff includes specialists in botany, ecology, geology and history as well as paleontology. Funding comes from program revenues, donations and memberships.
He believes that professional paleontologists can benefit from help of dedicated, educated amateurs in the field.
"This is designed to be a museum without the overhead and the facility," he says. "I've worked at a number of museums. Timescale started as an experiment to bring the general public and research together. It doesn't have to be a mysterious science. Where would the world be if this amateur (Marion) hadn't been out there?"
Recently, Marion accompanied David to the site of some of his field research in the Two Medicine Formation.
Her eyes methodically sweep the ground in front of her as she scrambles across the rough terrain, resplendent in green bunchgrasses and wildflowers after recent drenching rains.
Every so often she bends down and holds up an object for David to identify.
"That's a piece of fossil coral," he says. "That's a nice piece of mudstone."
"Once you do this," he adds, "you never look at rocks the same way again - as glimpses into time. It doesn't take much to look at layers of silt stone, and remember the last time you looked at a stream moving silt. That's the same thing and it's a whole new perspective."
Marion pauses to snatch an odd looking stone from the prairie.
"That's the metatarsal from the left hind foot of a sub-adult duck-billed dinosaur," says David.
"I thought it was," says his mother.
Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at email@example.com