September 5, 2019

Dinosaur Research Draws Acclaim, Inspires New TV Series

Lindsey Gendke, Southwestern Adventist University, and North American Division

Big things are happening with Southwestern Adventist University’s Dinosaur Excavation and Taphonomic Research Project. With its Dinosaur Science Museum housing a world-class collection of more than 25,000 bones and its ever-increasing media exposure, the project is drawing unprecedented attention.

For those who can’t visit the project’s dig site in Wyoming, United States, Hope Channel is preparing a six-episode documentary on the project for release in fall 2019, giving viewers a glimpse of what hundreds of students, researchers, and hobbyists experience in the wilds of Wyoming every June.

For one month every year, the ongoing dinosaur excavation project, led by professors Art Chadwick and Jared Wood, moves from Southwestern Adventist University’s biology department to the 8,000-acre Hanson Ranch and Research Center in eastern Wyoming.

This year’s dig drew 120 participants ranging in age from newborn to 85 years old. Guests included 10 international educators from the countries of the Philippines, Argentina, Peru, Italy, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, and Korea. Approximately 2,300 bones were unearthed by a new record average of 50 diggers per day, according to Wood.

On Father’s Day, 150 local residents accepted an open invitation to visit the site. Wood said the words “overwhelmed” and “awed” were common responses from visitors, adding that people also tended to show surprise at the scope of Southwestern Adventist University’s fossil collection.

Joining the Dig

The Hope Channel documentary, directed by Paul Kim, Southwestern Adventist University’s newest communication professor, is currently in post-production. The documentary, which features sweeping shots of the site and a “reality-show type feel,” according to Wood, will give a good picture of what it is like “to be in camp, to be part of the dig.”

Caleb Hinde, a freshman at Southwestern Adventist University who aspires to be a paleontologist, will receive class credit for participating in this summer’s dig. He said, “The [evening] class I attended as a part of the dig provided a comprehensive look at the basics of dinosaur classification, alongside several detailed lectures regarding the debate between the theory of evolution and the biblical account of creation. [It] was an enjoyable accompaniment to the fieldwork.”

“Our numbers continue to grow,” Wood said. “We’ve gone from having three people the first year — two professors, Chadwick and Turner [now retired], and one student — to about 50 people per day from around the world. There is just a huge interest.”

“A World-Class Collection”

In January, Southwestern Adventist University was recognized in the Journal of Paleontological Sciences for its work with the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek and Lance formations, which are some of the most fossil-rich rock units in the United States. The units are located in Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota.

Out of 65 universities and institutions with dinosaur bone databases, Southwestern Adventist University was recognized by the journal — along with the University of California Museum of Paleontology on the campus of UC Berkeley, and Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History on the campus of Yale University — because it “stood out as providing the most detail in the easiest and most aesthetic format.” Further, the journal noted, Southwestern Adventist University “in particular, provided photographs, historical and geologic context for just about every specimen in the large and mostly complete database.”

“I was told this summer by a paleontologist that we had the largest collection of Lance Formation fossils in the world,” Wood said. “We have the best collection of general [fossils] like Edmontosaurus, which is a type of duck-billed dinosaur. We always thought we had the best, but now it’s been justified. It’s pretty amazing for a school our size to have this world-class collection.”

Wood is hopeful that one day the program can have a stand-alone museum. For now, the program continues to grow in other ways, as donations and grants come in.

Expected Expansion

In Wyoming, the dinosaur research program is outgrowing its main building, leading Wood and Chadwick to work with an architect to construct a larger building that can support up to 150 people a day, as opposed to the 85 it currently accommodates.

Back on campus, museum traffic is increasing, with an estimated 100 to 200 visitors per week during the school year. On the academic side, the paleontology class has recently been added to the official biology curriculum and now counts toward the requirements of a biology major.

While the program is targeted toward educators and high school and college students, people of all ages, levels of interest, and skill are welcome at the dig, Wood said. Next year, he added, the program will offer five scholarships for college students studying at Southwestern Adventist University, as well as students from other schools.

Southwestern Adventist University is a Seventh-day Adventist school in Keene, Texas, United States.

The original version of this story was posted on the North American Division news site.