LAWRENCE — You can tell when you talk to University of Kansas paleontologist David Burnham that he is anxious to return to the dig site of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Rains have made parts of the two-track road that leads to the site impossible to pass for two days. And the clock is running: The KU paleontology expedition in Montana will stop at the end of July.
Still, calling in from the small hotel in Jordan, Montana, where he is waiting out the weather, Burnham beams about what has been found so far: 37 fossil fragments, including teeth and part of a lower jaw.
“It’s a matter of following the debris field, bit by bit,” he said.
Burnham is leading an ever-changing roster of volunteers, students and staff for the nearly four-week expedition. The team’s goal is to add to the fossils already previously recovered at the site and displayed at the KU Natural History Museum. To date, 15 percent of the fossil has been found at the Hell Creek Formation site since excavations began there in 2006.
A crowdfunding campaign – the museum’s first for an expedition – and a family with a passion for paleontology made the expedition possible.
The campaign, “Bring the KU T. rex Home,” began in May with a goal of raising $16,700 to fund the expedition. More than 80 donors have pushed the total raised to $24,730. Funds raised in excess of this particular expedition’s needs will support more T. rex research at KU, the exhibition of fossils and the involvement of students in the project.
A plastic Tyrannosaurus rex has been a mascot for the campaign, and the museum has featured it through events and social media such as the museum’s Facebook page. As the fundraising effort draws to a close this week, the tiny T. rex will be packed up and head north to Montana with museum staff, where it will be featured at the excavation it has helped inspire.
Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Biodiversity Institute, said the campaign would not have been a success without KU student Kyle Atkins-Weltman and his parents, John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston. They were the first and lead supporters of the project.
Kyle, a biology student who works in the herpetology department at the Biodiversity Institute, said he has been passionate about dinosaurs all of his life. He is a leading contributor for Dinosaur Battlegrounds.
“Paleontology is the ideal kind of work for me,” Kyle said. “I am comfortable working on the same thing for hours; you get into a zone. So slowly seeing something jutting out of the rock, and seeing it slowly reveal itself, is exciting to me.”
Cliff and John said Kyle fueled their enthusiasm for the project.
“When you have children, you want to invest in the things that excite them,” John said. “We also believe strongly in supporting education. And whatever knowledge one gains from the excavation – we wanted to help that on a broader scale.”
The family plans to volunteer at the dig site in July, he added.
“Kyle has gotten us so interested in dinosaurs,” John said. “I love Jurassic Park. I feel like an 8-year-old – I’m excited to volunteer at the site.”
In Montana, Burnham is hoping a forecast for sunny weather next week will hold true.
“I wake up full of excitement every day knowing that a discovery isn't too far away,” he said. “All the pieces we find are clues leading us closer. The only obstacle is the hard stubborn rock, but I know we must move slowly and carefully, as the next bone could be anywhere.”