By Kayleen Holder
Texas man Steve Kruse was just walking around, looking for fossils like he’s done for years when he found something truly astounding, a fossilized pre-historic monster estimated to be 80 million years old and 30-40 feet in length (based on the massive head and vertebrae that have already been excavated). The Mosasaur, which ruled the seas during the Cretaceous period, will now be one of the highlights of a museum in Dallas.
“The jawbone alone was about 4 feet long and took two strong people to carry,” Kruse said. “Words can’t describe the excitement. Hunting, finding, and excavating this mosasaur was an awesome experience. I felt like Indiana Jones and Dr. Grant all in one summer!”
Kruse and his family live in Brenham, TX, but after a good rain, he often makes the five-hour trip up to the North Sulfur River, which is “the most prolific fossil hunting site in Texas”, he says.
“The first thing I do is look for footprints. If someone has beat me to that spot, I move to the next. The North Sulphur River Valley has lots of easy access to its riverbed and tributaries. In May this year, I chose a small tributary that I haven’t been to before and had the best day ever,” Kruse said. “The river has fantastic run off, so it is very dry most of the time. When it rains flood waters rise very quickly and drain quickly, exposing a whole new layer of fossils.”
Right away, that fateful day this past May 20, he found a few vertabrae and broken rib pieces of what looked like a mosasuar.
“It is a rare event to find an articulated specimen….If not collected, the next rain will move it, bury it or break it. Excited from a successful hunt, the day passed by quickly. I realized that if I went back the way I came, I would be navigating in the dark. I chose to hike up the next tributary in hopes that it would get me to the road faster.”
That was “the best decision ever!” Kruse recalled.
“About 100 yards in, I found a large vertebrae sitting on the creek bed. The size alone made me excited, but then I became doubly excited when I noticed it did not have the usual wear of being tumbled downstream. It was wonderfully pristine. (I knew it couldn’t have floated too far.) I continued up the winding stream and found another vertebra in similar, excellent condition,” Kruse said.
“On the very next bend, I saw it!” he exclaimed. “There was fossilized bone coming out about two feet up the creek wall. I knew immediately what I found. I started celebrating, climbed out of the channel and up the nearest hill for cell phone reception. My wife and I discussed what to do next. Our son Jack chiming in that he wanted me to dig it out and bring it home. I said, ‘This is about a 40 foot mosasaur! Where would we put it?’ A fossil this big needs a bigger home, so I called Mike Polcyn at Southern Methodist University, the “Michael Jordan” of Paleontology.”
He put Kruse in touch with Ron Tykowski, the Director of the Perot Museum in Dallas. They soon assembled a crew and started excavating. It was 100 degrees, he said, but it was well worth it.
“The museum crew came ready to dig. The creek wall overburden was removed, exposing the fossil bearing layer. Then, the desired bones were meticulously brushed, marked and plastered. The entire excavation process took several days. Currently, the bones are available to view behind the glass of the Fossil Prep Lab in the Perot Museum.
Kruse explains, in Texas, laws allow you to hike any navigable waterways, which makes fossil hunting at the NSR truly great.
“So you can park on a bridge and hike up and down the North Sulfur river bed as far as you like. It is one of the few places you can do surface collection. If you find a dinosaur fossil, you can keep it,” Kruse adds.
Kruse’s love for dinosaurs and fossil hunting began as a young boy at Granny’s house.
“When I was little, Granny wanted to keep me and my older brother busy,” Kruse said. “So, she told us that there were dinosaur bones in the alley and we could go dig them up. We never found anything in that alley, but we were excited at the idea. I continued looking in the ground, mostly finding minerals, fossilized wood and crinoid stems. It was years later when I found a place I could go to find fossilized bone, the North Sulfur River.”
October 15, 2022 is the next annual Fossil Day at the new Ladonia Fossil Park.
“There will be displays of local fossil finds, food and drinks. This is a wonderful event for fossil hunting amateurs to learn from enthusiasts that have been hunting the river for decades,” Kruse says.
Time is of the essence however.
“Officials recently decided to dam it the North Sulfur River and turn the western half into a lake, so we only have a year and a half left to find the fossils that are there,” Kruse stated.
It can be hard to tell what is what when hunting fossils, Kruse says, and attending the Fossil Day is a great way to learn how.
“The river can really tumble and wear down a bone. Some pieces barely look like what they were. Mosasaurs were abundant, each having more than 100 vertebrae. Vertebrae are rather easy to tell because it is mostly cylinder, one end is concave with the other end convex,” Kruse said.
Finding a complete skeleton is not very common, but that’s exactly what experts are hoping to find at the site of Kruse’s discovery as the dig continues.
“The skull was found in the cliff wall with enough pieces to indicate that the rest of the skeleton went back into the hill. The days of summer were hot to excavate, so the Trinity River Authority and Perot Museum made plans to come back with a crew and large machinery when the weather is cooler this fall,” Kruse said.