Montana hunter finds 75-million-year-old fossil

SALMON, Idaho Fri Nov 19, 2010 6:21pm EST

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A hunter in northeast Montana has uncovered what paleontologists believe is the fossil of a plesiosaur, a carnivorous marine reptile that lived about 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, officials said on Friday.

Scientists say the find by David Bradt, who was hunting elk in September when he came upon the fossilized remains of the sea-going creature, is significant because the specimen appears to be largely intact.

Bradt found the 12-foot-long fossil while bow-hunting in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, 110 miles east of Great Falls, Montana.

"At first I didn't realize what I was looking at," Bradt, manager of a guest ranch in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, told Reuters in an interview.

"Then I realized it wasn't just an interesting piece of rock, I was looking at a rib. I was awestruck."

A review of Bradt's digital photographs has led paleontologists to conjecture the fossil is a plesiosaur, a long-necked reptile with a squat body that ate fish and squid. Plesiosaurs were adapted for swimming and feeding in the ancient seas, with paddle-like limbs, or fins.

David Varricchio, a Montana State University paleontologist, said the reptiles ranged from 10 to 50 feet in length.

"Think Loch Ness monster," Varricchio said, adding that the find was creating a buzz among researchers because it is possible scientists may be able to discern such things as contents of the early reptile's last meal.

"If it's an intact animal, there is much more that can be learned -- who the animal is, where it lived, what it did for a living," he said.

Bradt believes the plesiosaur's head is attached to its body but it is covered by debris.

"At a certain point, I knew anything I did could do damage so I took pictures and left it in place," he said.

The Charles M. Russell refuge covers more than 1 million acres of prairies, badlands and forests in the Upper Missouri River of northeastern Montana.

It contains the Missouri River Breaks, an outcropping of marine rocks that date back to prehistoric times and were part of a shallow inland sea that divided North America.

Because of the rugged terrain and harsh winter weather conditions at the site of the find, scientists were not expected to excavate the specimen until spring or even summer. A federal agent has reburied the fossil to protect it from plundering, which is a crime on federal lands.

Officials say fossils of prehistoric animals fetch big sums on the open market, making specimens attractive to poachers as well as commercial collectors.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)