SANTEE, Neb. — The latest lesson for Santee, Neb., students has been 75 million years in the making.
The historic — or actually, prehistoric — moment came Thursday, when the students viewed the mosasaur fossil unearthed last week. The fossil was accidentally found a half-mile south of town during a Knox County, Neb., highway project.
Shane Tucker, a University of Nebraska paleontologist, found the 2- to 3-foot jaw and head. The fossil was carefully prepared for transport to a building in Santee. But first, Tucker invited the local students to visit the site for a unique educational opportunity.
Santee history teacher Sheri Plumbtree said the invitation was extended to grades K-12. The students took advantage of the find, which occurred on the Santee Sioux Nation.
“(Tucker) talked to us about how old the bones were and what type they had found,” she said. “It was a really good opportunity for our students to get out to see it. Not very many students get a chance to see a dig site to begin with, let alone one that’s in your backyard.”
The students enjoyed the connection between natural history and their culture, Plumbtree said.
“They thought it was pretty cool. It was right here on tribal land, and they let us walk right up to (the fossil) and pet it,” she said. “(The fossil) was 75 million years old. It was something that it could be safe for that many years, but it was pretty much all encased in mud.”
Tucker couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. However, Knox County highway superintendent Kevin Barta said he wasn’t surprised the paleontologist reached out to the students.
“Shane is really into outreach,” he said. “All the school kids came up, and he gave a very good demonstration. He supported the kids’ interest in this.”
Barta said only the jaw and head were found at the site. However, the skull showed signs of where it entered the vertebrae.
“I would describe it more as a snake or swimming eel, maybe a crocodile,” he said. “It’s an aggressive animal. I would estimate it was 18 feet long. It’s the same (kind of fossil) that they found when they built Niobrara State Park (to the west).”
In 1986, the largest known mosasaur fossil in Nebraska, measuring 33 feet long, was discovered in Niobrara State Park. The 80-million-year-old marine reptiles are commonly found in Cretaceous deposits along the Missouri River.
Barta said the fossil find holds special meaning for him in two different ways.
“I’m originally from Niobrara, so I’m from this area. And I graduated from Chadron State (Neb.) with a degree in geology, so I have a big interest in this,” he said. “It’s really exciting to come across something like this on a road project. I really enjoy geology, and Knox County has a lot of Pierre shale with a bentonite layer in it.”
Last week’s find wasn’t the first fossil unearthed on the Santee Sioux Nation, Barta said.
“The last time they found a fossil in Knox County (in 2003), it was a pleisosaur in the state road’s right of way near Center,” he said.
However, this week’s visit was unique for the Santee students, Plumbtree said.
“For them to see it firsthand was a new experience,” she said. “When they found the (fossil) by Center, it was already gone by the time any of us had the opportunity to go over there.”
The Mesozoic plesiosaur fossil excavated in 2003 has been determined to be about 70 million years old, near the end of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era.
The current site differs from the find of nearly a decade ago, Plumbtree said. “(Santee) wasn’t like the one found in Center, where there were lots of fossils around it,” she said.
The recent find near Santee contained a measure of luck, Plumbtree said.
“They were re-doing that back road, and it really was just a fluke that a maintainer went over it, and a paleontologist from the University of Nebraska was checking the site,” she said. “As they moved the dirt, he checked for anything that might be there, and there was a tooth. One more swipe of the maintainer and the (fossil) would have been gone.”
Tucker’s find was fortunate, but his presence was planned, Barta said.
“Shane works for the University of Nebraska Museum as a highway salvage paleontologist. His job is to go around construction and try to find fossils if they are uncovered and to save them,” Barta said.
“Shane was walking the project and found something shiny. It was a little black tooth from that jaw bone, and they dug deeper. It’s a shame that the scrapers and backhoe cut into (the fossil) a little bit, but it never would have been exposed if they weren’t doing any road construction.”
Tucker’s search process can be painstaking but fruitful, Barta said.
“It’s like finding a needle in the haystack, but what they find is amazing,” the highway superintendent said.
Last week’s find currently remains in Santee, Barta said. He isn’t sure of the long-term plans for the fossil, but the 2003 find at Center has been housed at the nearby Ashfall Fossil Beds Historical Park in northern Antelope County.
As Nebraska’s newest state park, Ashfall Fossil Beds opened its gates June 1, 1991. Located six miles north of U.S. Highway 20 between Royal and Orchard, the park is a joint project of the University of Nebraska State Museum and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
The Santee students and staff shot video and pictures of the site and the group’s visit, Plumbtree said.
“We want to put some of it in our school yearbook,” she said.
The Santee faculty also plan to make the fossil find more than a one-day field trip, Plumbtree said.
“We are planning to incorporate the event into our classrooms. We have the English, math and science teachers and myself planning a whole section based on it,” she said. “We will cover things like how old (the fossil) was. We will do some math things and some science things, and I will talk about the history and geography part of it.”
And no, unlike the T. Rex unearthed in South Dakota that was named “Sue,” the Santee fossil hasn’t been given a name right now, Plumbtree said. But she’s not ruling it out in the future.
Regardless of whether the mosasaur gains a moniker, Plumbtree believes the newfound prehistoric pal will remain a personal experience that will stay with her young students for the rest of their lives.
“How many people can say they got to see one of these (fossils)?” she asked.
You can follow Randy Dockendorf on Twitter at twitter.com/RDockendorf