Mule Treat or Fossilized Baculite?

In keeping with the Lost Sea theme, I gather marine fossils as I journey along the floor of the vanished sea. I slip them into Polly’s wagon while she’s not looking, keenly aware the weight of one added to the next adds up to heavier pulling. Then, feeling guilty, I slide them into my pockets, as though lugging them around in corduroy significantly eases Polly’s burden.

It started with the carrot-shaped fossil Doug Smith gave me back in Dagmar, Montana. Doug, paleontologist, mensch extraordinaire and Montana Dinosaur Trail organizer, did his best to explain what it was. Bernie, still reeling from figuring out life on the road in a mule wagon, didn’t get it.

Until now, (sorry Doug), I’ve been letting Polly chew on it.

Sorry Doug…

In her quest for the Ever-Expanding-Belly, the Rubinesque Polly (she’s gained weight every step of this Expedition) has developed the self-serving habit of rummaging my hands for food – apple cores, bread, broccoli – anything to add to her girth.

Mule “Bernie, are you going to eat that?” Polly

On its own, out her on the Lost Sea, it’s not a big deal. Still, I try to discourage the habit. I don’t want her to confuse children’s fingers with baby carrots. Kids sure love a mule, can’t resist petting the nose of one tied up outside the grocery store, and, well, you get the picture.

So, to suppress Polly’s nibbling instincts, I took to offering her Doug’s carrot-shaped fossil, the one I carry around in my pocket. Nice try. Rather than shun its mineral taste and petrified texture, she took to it like a permanent lollipop – one she could suck and chew on but never damage. I think she was going for the salt that had transferred to it from my sweaty, guilt-ridden paws. So much for breaking her of being mouthy.

In Hill City I sobered up. I decided that, instead of using my pocket fossil as a mule pacifier, I should really should have it identified. So I took it down to Neal Larson at the Black Hills Institute.

I’d met Neal earlier at the Waugh dinosaur dig in Hulett, Wyoming.

Neal Larson

Along with brother Pete and partner Bob Farrar, he co-owns and runs the the world’s largest privately-held fossil museum. In addition, he’s the world’s leading expert on North American ammonites, baculites and belemnites, extinct marine creatures related to today’s chambered nautilus, octopus and squid.

What better man to identify my mule-gnawed fossil?

“Ah! That’s probably a Baculites eliasi!” he exclaimed when I showed it to him. Neal speaks in exclamations, not statements. “Last endemic Baculite of the Western Interior Seaway”.

Great. Mule Polly was using the equivalent of a stuffed passenger pigeon for a chew toy.

The Baculite, Neal explained, was a long, tubular, chambered creature related to the modern nautilus. In layman’s terms, it looked like a carrot with a squid’s head and tentacles fused to its wide end. It used fluid-filled chambers connected by a tube called a siphuncle to regulate its position in the water column.

Neal showed me models of Baculites he’d constructed at the Black Hills Institute.

Model Baculites (Left and Right) surround Ammonite (Center)

The tricky thing about making a Bacuilte model is this. No fossilized Bacuilte soft tissue has been found. The only fossilized remains that were unearthed, apart from the shell, was the occasional beak that resembled a parrot’s. Aside from that, reconstruction relied on guess-work.

Ammonite beak. Baculite beak would be similiar

“Baculites are cephalopods,” Neal explained, “so, aside from the fossilized beak and shells we’ve found, all we had to go on is how their modern relatives, the squid and octopus, are built.” Posed under a five-foot long Baculite model whose rubbery arms reached toward me in slithery grasps, he added, “so we gave them 8 arms. But really, it’s just an educated guess because we really don’t know.”

For emphasis, he pointed to a dime-sized hitchhiker attached to one of the circular ammonites. “We figured they would have had barnacles on them, too.”


Neal sent me home to the Lost Sea wagon with a selection of annotated Baculite fossils.

“Baculites Corrugates – 73 Million Years Ago – Found SE Rapid City, 25 miles away”.
“Baculites Sp (undescribed) – 82 Million Years Ago – Crow Indians collected these for buffalo stones”.

Baculites Sp (undescribed)

The last chunk of Baculite Neal gave me was thicker than my forearm. “Baculites grandes – 69 Million Years Ago – From Weston County, Wyoming”.

Bernie’s arm – versus – Baculites grandes

Don’t worry, Neal.

It’ll never fit in Polly’s mouth.

(Thanks, Neal, for the Baculite education. For anyone interested in Neal’s work with ammonites, baculites and all things Western Interior Seaway (Lost Sea), be sure to check out the Black Hills Institute, especially the section on marine creatures.

No, Doug, Polly’s not going to chew on your fossil anymore.



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