The Bliss Ranches “Horn Sieve Site”

Claws, Toenails and Horns of ANY Dinosaurian Species are rarities in and of themselves.  They are not making any more of them.  Finding an important fossil is often a bucket list item and here is my bucket.     

I’ve been collecting fossils on this ranch since 2001.   I’ve worked various other fossiliferous sites which are also still producing fossils here for years finding many important things.  In 2016 after everybody cleared out from the Wyoming Tactical Rifle Championship in early July, I got serious and opened up a new small quarry on some beds I first started working in 2002.   They had always had good quantities of the 65 million year old Hell Creek Formation’s famous dinosaurian fossils.     I found the site covering ground on foot (which is how you do it).  There were vertebra (centrums) and other indications of fossils laying in the grass.  Hard to miss, you just have to want to get some exercise walking really big country and looking at every square inch carefully and systematically with a trained eye. 

Hell Creek Formation is a 700 feet thick sequence of sands, muds and lake deposits from massive dumping of sediments by a huge system of rivers draining big mountains a few hundred miles to our west (now gone from being eroded away) toward the epicontinental ocean that was to our east at the time.   It was the end of the dinosaur rule with sediments a mile or so away recording the demise of their time on earth.  Only the bird lineage survives to today.

Bear with me while I get into some basic geology/sedimentology of the “Horn Sieve Beds”.  

The rock deposit I am working is roughly 150 feet long and 4 feet thick at it’s thickest thinning left and right but extending back into the hillside an unknown distance.  It is on my private deeded land.  The location is underlain by at least 6 feet of slick grey mud river bottom that had a layer of mixed debris slathered on top by the pretty big water current flowing above.  Somehow this was the final deposit preserved till the present because it wasn’t destroyed by a later meander of the huge river system but quickly covered and removed from Oxygen.  The bones were preserved. It was exposed at the surface and I walked by at the same point in history.   

ALL of these fossils have been rolled down a river before.   Some have been abraded as such.  Others are amazingly pristine.  This photo was taken the last day of field season before snow covered it in 2016 then next day.    This was excavated with trackhoe work and yes I will eventually reclaim the land and replant it if I don’t build on the site.    It’s actually a great building site with big views LOL so time there is time well spent. Not only do you find fossils but one can focus without the distractions of modern life.  I’d rather be distracted by a T-rex bone for whatever reason.  Call me old fashioned.   The talus will be producing dinosaur fossils for generations if I leave it open.  Humm……

Here is a boring geology photo showing what the sediment looked like as it was being laid down as distinct mud pebbles or all sizes and sandy fill around them.   Some of this outcrop is cemented by a mineral cement and is hard as granite, other places like this it’s more like it was when it was deposited by the rivers current, softer and easier to dig.  If you can see some big chucks of grey clay (see just left of center), that was a clay pebble rolling down a river about a foot across.  The current was running left to right and the river had enough current velocity to move huge 3 foot chunks of clay down river along with any thing smaller including dinosaur bones.  In such a fast current, it was easy to wash away smaller things like teeth and light bones but heavy dense bones like Horns and claws tended to stay (like a gold pan).  There are no bones visible in this photo but it shows the fluvial (riverine) nature of the fossils source rocks. The mud pebbles that were generated by the current ripping pieces of mud off the floor of the river, maybe a bank collapsing and the debris moved down river like a concrete flow until the current settled enough for it to freeze in place.  Hard to know how fast this happened but I’m thinking days.    The bones were just another piece of stone in the stream bouncing along with the current.    At times I’m thinking that this has characteristics of a dense debris flow.   Speculation without extreme statistical sampling and someones PhD research will not be accurate I suspect.

For example here is a gastrolith stomach stone (stone upper left) and bone fragments of a pretty nice hadrosaur toe bone in place (low right corner) but the rounded nature of the pebbles are not obvious because they are being broken across as I dig through them.   These were all pieces of mud or sand that were ripped up by a river current, rounded and deposited here with what ever else the river decided to pick up earlier, transport to here and deposit it here.  The Sedimentary environment here is very interesting to me but I have a masters in Geology so this is right up my alley.

Amazing things have come out of this location.  Randomly usually, this was literally in the last 10 minutes of the 2016 field season after I covered up the outcrop for the winter….. Got out of my Skid steer to look around at what I forgot.  Below me, laying in plain site, free of the sediment that cradled it, dislodged by the excavation, looking like it’s a cobble stone.   Would you have left it?  It is a quite rare nose horn from a Triceratops species young adult male.    Looks like a rock right?

It’s horn appearance is a little more obvious as I clean it up that it is shaped like a horn, has hairlike lines (Like antelope horn) over a dense bony center.  (I have a masters degree in this, it’s a horn).   This was a young Triceratops (three horn to my young readers) about the size of an elephant’s nose horn.  The bottom is broken by a bite.  (I have other horns with teeth grooves from predations too).

A display case in my guest quarters of various fossils found here at the Bliss Dinosaur Ranch.  There are 1/2 a dozen species represented in the cabinet.   Ignore the labels on the glass as I changed them that day later.

Some of these Dinosaurs horns (this one is a Brow horn) get pretty big.    I collected a dozen brow horn sections and a dozen nose horns that I consider “perfect” in 2016.  Many dozen partials came out.  Pieces parts and segments of horns are actually quite rare in the Hell Creek but the hydrologic conditions were obviously such that they were concentrated there and thus I call the beds, the “Horn Sieve Beds”.    According to a big dealer (which I talk to buying used cleaning equipment (I do not sell fossils), he  was offered 4 horns this year.   I found over 20.  What a season!

I find myself working on almost anything here.  Here is part of a Triceratops’ Frill (by the arm) and a partial limb bone.   The Little bottle has a penetrant/superglue in it and the can is an instant drying agent.  These things break if your not VERY careful.  

Here is a photo of Patty brushing away which seems to be like knitting for paleobugs. So from about her knees to about shoulder height is the bed in question.   Fortunately, it is near the top of a hill so there isn’t a huge amount of overburden to move.   This is still hard work.  

You just don’t know what your going to run into here.   Here I am with messed up glasses and the skull base from some poor hapless Hadrosaur (duckbill) dinosaur.

It’s a pretty nice fossil at this point.   I consider it one of two or three personal favorites of the year.  This is the underside which is where the skull sits on the top vertebra and the nerve cord exits the cranial cavity.  This side is wonderfully preserved but the other side is beat up.   It’s intact and well preserved though.  You don’t find skulls every summer. 

There is a lot of work that goes along with just finding a fossils.  Usually they have damage that needs to be repaired.     Here is a WONDERFUL Triceratops nose horn that came out of the ground in over 40 pieces.   Talk about a 3D Puzzle.   Superglue, water based epoxy, time and effort is what this takes.  

Here it is after prepping and filling in the cracks, texturing the water based epoxy fill and matching color.  It is a very very rare thing and I consider myself quite lucky to save it.   It weighs about 20 pounds.   This was from a very large male Triceratops that lost his war eventually.  

I think it came out pretty well considering.

Some fossils literally fall out intact and are perfect as they are.  Below are hoofs from those Hadrosaurs (duckbill).   The center three objects are hoofs, the little horn on the right is an amazing baby Triceratops horn.

A “reconstruction” of a Duckbills foot from bones found this summer on the ranch.  It’s actually quite accurate and with a few size issues, correct anatomically or at least close enough to be pretty cool anyway.    This is just the fingers, not the hand part, and that is an 18 inch long ruler at the bottom.   Heck, the table below is made up of an Eocene Lake floor and has fish fossils on it.  How fun is that.  

We have a lot of material from this site.   Yes that is a turtle shell, it is from our ranch but not this Horn Sieve Site.    LOTS of misc bones.    They are older than the framed tapestry but not by much.

Here is another example of claws.  A Struthiomimus lost his battle but this claw survived to LITERALLY fall out into my open hand (Witnessed).   

Some pristine fossils have come out.  Below is the Last digit of the middle finger of a T-rex.  This is the bone the 10 long killing claw was attached to.   I’ve got a dozen people trying to buy this from me.   (I do not sell fossils).  I’ve had some very good offers.   Looking for a Superduty Truck 250, new all the extras…….Might throw in a few other fossils…….

The Horn Sieve beds have the possibility of presenting to those intrepid enough to collect there almost anything that was alive at the end of the Cretaceous.   These are various “centrums” or backbone vertebra from various dinosaurs found at my quarry this summer.  The rounded rocks in the center were “gastroliths” or stomach stones the various dinosaur swallowed to help them digest their food.  Some of those gastroliths which are found in place with the dinosaur bones and have no other local source to get here, were not rolling down a sand choked river.  They were brought there from many miles away by wandering dinosaurs.  This is sandstone country with no place for those to come from unless something brought them there.  Most of them are semi polished and smooth like they were in a rock tumbler.  Much smoother than a river would finish them naturally.  They would be covered with percussion marks but these are not generally.   (the biggest one does)   Most of them were rounded by stomach action, not by river action.  They are almost all stained red rusty red on their surface.    We are starting to run out of places to put some of this stuff.   

I do find teeth here Rarely though as the material weathers on the surface over the next few years, more will show themselves to me.  Here are some from the “Horn Sieve Site.”  Take a close look at the original “Ginsu” edge cutting implement below.  Predators came up with this first but it was for grabbing a hold of meat not cutting it.  The 70 or so teeth like them in a mouth would be an impressive weapon.  

Below is a very nice Juvenile T-rex tooth.   Came off the surface from the float debris along with another similar tooth a week later.  

Even rarer than teeth are Pachycephalosaurus spines.   This was a spine off the back of ones head.  If you don’t know the animal, it’s the most like a dragon looking dinosaur there is.  I have a skull cap from a Pachycephalosaur elsewhere in this site from this location found a decade ago.  This spine was spied by me when I was moving a pile of “spoil” sediments away from the outcrop with my Case Skid Steer.  It was literally sitting on the top center of the bucket as I was moving it.  It was another “it was just laying there” story.  You might be able to buy one on eBay for 3 or 4 hundred bucks.   Just laying there.