As an ambitious paleontologist fresh out of college, Bruce Erickson promised the Science Museum of Minnesota he would find a dinosaur for its collection when he decided to hire him in 1959.
Two years later, he and his team have delivered.
First spotted by his sharp-eyed wife, Lois, they discovered a triceratops at the bottom of a ravine in Montana’s Hell Creek Formation. It was one of the oldest and largest nearly complete skeletons of its type in the world and has become a centerpiece of the museum’s collection.
But it’s digging up crocodilian fossils – mostly in the Wannagan Creek area of western North Dakota, where crocodiles roamed 60 million years ago just past the age of the dinosaurs – that captivated Erickson for most of his 58-year career. These crocodiles are believed to be the ancestors of modern alligators found in places like Florida today.
Erickson, the Science Museum’s longtime curator of paleontology who helped it amass an impressive trove of fossils, died Jan. 16. He was 91 years old.
“What he’s built at the museum with the collection is a data set that will be mined by scientists for years and generations to come,” said Laurie Fink, the museum’s science chair. “We sometimes forget how valuable these collections are, but they will tell us about climate change – looking at what happened before the extinction of the dinosaurs and after. It tells us about the environment. These fossils will tell this story.”
She added that researchers around the world will soon have easier access to it since the museum recently secured funding to digitize its collection of North Dakota crocodilian fossils that Erickson and his teams have unearthed for nearly three decades. .
Alex Hastings, who succeeded him as curator of paleontology at the museum, shares Erickson’s passion for crocodiles. When he came to interview for the job, he recalled his awe when Erickson first gave him a glimpse of the vast collection.
“He started opening all the alligator cabinets and I almost started crying,” Hastings said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is so amazing and wonderful.’ “
Not only is the collection notable for its size which includes samples from multiple sites and spans multiple time periods, Hastings said Erickson was also a meticulous note-taker and produced detailed maps and illustrations.
“It’s really important for any kind of scientific research,” he said.
The son of a coffee vendor, Erickson was born and raised in Minneapolis. His love of fossils started when he was around 10 years old. He was playing with a friend near his house on the banks of the Mississippi when they saw something weird.
“They saw a man picking up rocks and breaking them open with a hammer,” Lois Erickson said. “He happened to be a geology professor at the University of Minnesota. He taught the boys how to find fossils. And that’s where it all started.”
He was drafted into the Korean War when he was 19 and spent two years on the front lines, she said. Back home, he attended the University of Minnesota, where he met his wife.
He worked at the Field Museum in Chicago before returning to Minnesota to complete his studies, she said.
Erickson was drawn to Wannagan Creek in North Dakota after a shoebox of bones discovered by a rancher in western North Dakota caught Erickson’s attention in 1970. He determined that they were crocodile remains. Intrigued, he started digging in this area to find out more.
He ended up discovering a huge treasure trove of specimens at this site for 27 years which are now contained in the museum’s exhibits and research vault.
Erickson’s wife, and later his three sons, often accompanied him when he worked in the field in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.
“The kids would also participate and help with the cast,” his wife said. “They learned a lot. … They had the biggest sandbox in the world at the dig.”
He also had a dedicated group of volunteers, many of whom worked with him for decades.
“The relationship he had with them – it was touching to see,” Fink said, recalling how that evolved in his later years when he spent more time at the museum. “They had their coffee breaks twice a day where he would come with them and just sit and talk about fossils.”
Even after his retirement in 2017, he continued to study fossils. At the time of his death he was working on a paper with a colleague on fossils found in southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and parts of South Dakota,
“They had almost finished it,” his wife said. “He just couldn’t stop.”
Besides his wife, survivors include sons Brooke, Todd and Timothy Erickson, and a granddaughter.
Services took place.