Science Museum Helps Local Boy Identify Fossil

by | Apr 2023

Lucas McGary in the Bone Room at Science Museum of Minnesota.

Lucas McGary in the Bone Room at Science Museum of Minnesota. Photos: Jillian McGary

Youth makes an interesting discovery on Big Island.

Walking the beach at Big Island on Lake Minnetonka, one never knows what strange object might catch his/her eye. “There’s still a lot of debris from when it was an amusement park,” Jillian McGary says. The Deephaven resident and her 11-year-old son, Lucas, were taking their dog, Halo, for a walk last August when their search for cool rocks turned up something that was neither a rock nor amusement park debris. “I thought it was petrified wood,” Lucas says. “Mom thought it was a tooth.”

Whatever the roughly 2-1/2-inch-long object was, Lucas knew he wanted to bring it back home to study it. Once home, they began to wonder if they had unearthed a dinosaur fossil. “In my brain, it’s a fossil, so it must be a dinosaur,” McGary says. “There’s not much of a dinosaur fossil record in Minnesota.”

juvenile bison horn fossil

Lucas’ fossil find.

After an exhaustive internet search, they were no closer to finding a definitive answer, so McGary reached out to the experts. “I wrote to two paleontologists,” she says. Alex Hastings, Ph.D., the Fitzpatrick Chair of Paleontology at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, was on the receiving end of one of those emails. From the pictures, he agreed that it was an odd piece. He invited the McGary family to the museum to go through its osteology collection (part of the Biology Department) to help identify piece. “It’s always easier to identify in person,” Hastings says. “We’ve done this a couple of times and used it as an educational opportunity.”

The McGary family accepted the invitation and spent an hour in the bone room with Hastings. “I walked them through our process and showed them our collection,” Hastings says. And after examining their find, Hastings was able to determine that it was likely part of a juvenile bison skull—the horn, where it meets the rest of the skull, which has a characteristic ridge that helped identify it. “We went through the whole process,” Hastings says. “The canals helped narrow it down.”

Hastings estimated that the fossil was around 4,000–5,000 years old, based on other carbon-dated bison remains previously found in that area. “It’s a little rare,” he says. “You’re not likely to run into one every time you go to the beach.” Hastings says there was a time that bison would have been a regular sight around Lake Minnetonka. “They were incredibly abundant. There were massive herds across the landscape,” he says.

The McGary’s were excited to get some answers about the piece. “I find it delightful to be wrong,” McGary says. “We were able to learn so much.”

“It’s not as cool as a dinosaur, but, wow,” Lucas says. “We realized this goes back to the King Tut era.”

After their visit to the science museum, Lucas, a fifth grader at Deephaven Elementary School, wrote up a field report detailing the experience. He’s not ruling out a future career in paleontology. And, of course, they’ve been back to Big Island to see what else they could find. So far, no other petrified remains have turned up, but Lucas says they plan to keep looking. As for his bison fossil, Lucas says he’d be happy to donate it if asked. “Either that or it’s mine,” he says.

Collectors’ Corner

Do you have a cool find you would like help identifying? The Science Museum of Minnesota features a Collectors’ Corner, where the public is invited to bring in whatever they find in nature, and staff members will try to help identify it. The Collectors’ Corner is located near the lobby and is staffed during regular museum hours.

#FOSSILFRIDAY with Dr. Crocogator

Each week, Hastings debuts a new Fossil Friday post designed to educate the public about paleontology and the Science Museum of Minnesota’s fossil collection. Check out @dr_crocogator on TikTok, Instagram or Twitter.

Science Museum of Minnesota
120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul; 651.221.9444


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