Malta, Montana, is a long way from the Mississippi Delta. But if you rewind time about 75 million years, this part of Montana's Hi Line would look just like that rich river estuary. Now, add a herd of duck-bill dinosaurs struggling to cross one of the region's rivers during high water; some are swept under and drowned. Put these images together and you have the beginning of one explanation why northern Montana has rich dinosaur bone beds scattered across its high plains landscape.
"The bodies got snagged on a sandbar, possibly on the downstream end of an island, and what was left was like a train wreck of duckbill dinosaur bodies," imagines Judith River Dinosaur Institute Director Nate Murphy as he talks about the origin of today's Ashfield bone bed site atop the rugged Saco Hills southeast of Malta. The Ashfield site is one of the largest and most concentrated bone beds in Montana's Judith River formation, says Murphy. Mixed among its bones are teeth left by huge carnivores-predecessors of T-Rex-and smaller raptors, both of which fed on this ancient carrion.
During summer months, the Judith River Dinosaur Institute offers both 5-day and 2-day "paleo" field courses at the Ashfield site. The 5-day course gives participants "the full spectrum of paleontology, from discovery to exhibition," says Murphy. Excavating bones from the Ashfield site is the main focus, but one day is spent visiting new sites leases and another is spent at Malta's Phillips County Museum lab preparing the bones for display. The 2-day courses (every other weekend) concentrate on the excavating techniques at the Ashfield site.
All bones found by participants go to the Phillips County Museum for public display.