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Tripping over T-Rex

 

Name: Bob Harmon

Hometown: Bozeman, Montana

Vocation: Chief preparator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies and crew chief

Known For: Finding the first dinosaur bones with soft tissue

Bob Harmon is not an excitable man. His face isn’t animated as he points out the sauropod leg he is building out of fossils and plaster for a Museum of the Rockies exhibit that will open this summer. He doesn’t jump up and down describing the Tyrannosaurus rex fossil he found in the Montana badlands, which — when sawed open and put under a microscope — revealed the first soft tissue found in dinosaur bones.

But the slight grin on his weathered face and the way his brown eyes laugh as he shares his stories make it clear that wandering around in the hot sun looking for dinosaurs electrifies this 50-something Montana native. As he puts it: “Prospecting and finding bone is a kick for me.”

Harmon is the right-hand man of Jack Horner, who is perhaps the world’s most famous paleontologist, the man who discovered that dinosaurs care for their young and also served as technical advisor to the Jurassic Park movies. Harmon is the chief preparator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies and crew chief for a three-to-four-month field season each summer. Harmon is also something of an anomaly: Though his colleagues mostly have master’s or doctoral degrees, he never graduated high school.

“In a way, I don’t have any right to be here,” he says. “I quit school at 16 and never went back; I’ve just bluffed my way through it.”

Harmon grew up fishing and hunting around Cut Bank, Mont. As a kid on family outings, he collected fossilized snails. Then one day, 26 years ago, he stubbed his toe on a dinosaur bone. He didn’t know it was a dinosaur bone at the time, but the fossil intrigued him enough to prompt him to do a little research at the Cut Bank library. Unfortunately, he chuckles, “all they had were little kids’ dinosaur books.”

Not long after the failed library expedition, Harmon met the people who could satisfy his growing curiosity. One day, as he was out roaming the riverbank looking for fossils, Harmon spotted a paleontology field camp. Knowing the crew would be curious about someone wandering through their prospecting territory — and hoping they could identify the bones he had found — Harmon made sure to get noticed. “I kind of set myself up on a hill with my big Samoyed dog, and they came running,” he recalls.

This encounter led to dinner and Rainier beers with Jack Horner and his field crew. By the end of the evening, Harmon had been hired, giving up his career as an oil rig roughneck to become a professional bone collector.

Every summer, the hunt for fossils takes Harmon and his crew to some of the most inhospitable parts of Montana and Wyoming. With the sun blazing down, the crew spends all day prospecting for bones.

And sometimes the bones almost fall right out of the hillsides. Harmon was eating lunch one day in 2000, near the Fort Peck Reservoir in eastern Montana, when he turned around and noticed a T-Rex bone jutting out of the anticline above him. There was still soft tissue in the cracked femur of this 68 million-year-old dinosaur. It had been previously thought that organic material couldn’t exist in fossil material over 100,000 years old.

The dinosaur was named “B-Rex” for (Bob) Harmon, and today it sits in the museum upstairs from his lab. Harmon enjoys working in the lab, preparing fossils for researchers or museum exhibits. Still, it’s the fieldwork he loves. “It’s really something to see an animal come out of the earth,” he says, a grin spreading across his face. “You see a T-Rex skull come out of the ground, and it jacks you up.

“The prospect of discovery is the coolest thing. You never know what’s in the dirt until you start digging. Ninety percent of the time it’s nothing good; the good ones are so rare, but that’s what keeps it exciting.”

The author writes from Livingston, Montana.