Cliff Manuel knew what he saw, even though his nephew, geologist Erik Kvale, was skeptical. It wasn’t the right type of formation.
Manuel and Kvale were exploring near Shell, Wyo., in 1997, when Manuel saw fossilized footprints in an area known as the Sundance Formation. The area was once a Jurassic ocean, not a place dinosaurs would leave footprints.
But on closer inspection, they realized the tracks were real.
That’s the thing about the Bighorn Basin: though paleontologists have been excavating fossils and dinosaur bones in area since the 1800s, there is still much left to discover.
Manuel, who is chairman of the Bighorn Basin Geosciences Center in Greybull, discussed the basin’s storied history of discovery in a free presentation Wednesday Feb 3. 2016 at Northwest College in Powell.
For Manuel, the topic is a family affair. His wife, Row, grew up in Shell. Her parents knew the famous paleontologist Barnum Brown, who worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and excavated the Howe Dinosaur Quarry near Shell in the 1930s.
The Manuels moved from San Diego to Shell when Cliff Manuel retired from his aerospace career about 30 years ago. His wife’s family history with famous paleontologists, fossils and dinosaur bones fascinated him. When the couple made Shell their home, he often went in search of remnants from millions of years before.
A fossil-hunter could hardly pick a better place to live.
“When it comes to Jurassic dinosaurs, I would definitely put the Bighorn Basin in the top 10 places,” said Michael Brett-Surman, the Smithsonian collections specialist for dinosaurs.
Brett-Surman first visited the basin in the 1990s after a woman from Cody visited an exhibit and mentioned Shell and described the area as having dinosaur bones everywhere. Brett-Surman wanted to see it for himself. In the few days he was in the Bighorn Basin in 1992, he found dinosaur bones, mammal bones and ammonites.
“I was just finding fossils everywhere,” he said. “It’s a place where the more you look, the more you find.”
That was before Manuel and Kvale discovered the track site (which Kvale later dated to between 165 million and 167 million years old). The area was likely once an intertidal beach where meat-eating dinosaurs — they can’t determine the specific kind — walked along the ocean, Brett-Surman said. It’s another example of how special the area is for Jurassic history.
Brett-Surman returned to the basin for several years with a Smithsonian program. He now comes back each summer to work with the Manuels’ Geoscience Adventure Program which takes teachers into the field. The Bighorn Basin is an ideal place to learn about fossils and dinosaurs, he said. The Bighorn uplift, where the mountains rose from the ground, exposed ancient rocks and revealed 500 million years of the Earth’s history. “It’s like someone designed a classroom and dropped it right there,” he said.
He’s found numerous footprints and fossils, including the remains of a 163 million-year-old marine reptile called an ichthyosaur. For years it was on the display at the Shell post office.
“It was a reminder that this is in your backyard,” Brett-Surman said. “People don’t always realize when they pick up a belemnite that they are actually standing on a 160 million-year-old ocean floor.”
The talk on Feb. 3 was for both those who already know about the area’s famous fossils and for those who don’t know the history, said Ingrid Eickstedt, executive director of Powell Valley Community Education. “There’s a surprising amount of people who have no idea,” she said.
Manuel’s talk covered the Earth’s history from more than 500 million years ago. He also talked about all the fossils people can still find in the basin.
“If you get lucky,” he said, “you can find just about anything.”