HAMILTON, Mont. - A cross-country skier skiing through the Bitterroot Irrigation District Canal this winter discovered the fossilized remains of an ancient rhinoceros.
That's right -- a rhinoceros in the Bitterroot.
It's called a teleoceras, and it lived 5 million to 10 million years ago.
On Wednesday a paleontologist with the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman came to the Big Ditch to investigate.
Zach Miller showed paleontologist Dale Hanson where he and his wife found part of the jawbone of the teleoceras last winter.
The bone was embedded in a bank on a stretch of the Big Ditch, an irrigation canal, which in a few days will be filled with water for irrigators from north of Darby to Eagle Watch near Florence.
The exact location of the find is being kept confidential.
Miller is the director of the Western Agricultural Research Center in Corvallis. He is a scientist himself and was naturally curious when he came upon it.
"I saw a rock that didn't look quite right," he said. "And as we looked closer it started to look more and more like a bone."
Miller contacted Hanson. When the paleontologist saw the teeth in the fossil he knew he had found a rhino.
"We had the lower jaw," said Hanson, "and they have very characteristic teeth."
Hanson said 5 million to 10 million years ago the teleoceras were as common as elk are in the valley today.
"It's hard to imagine rhinos around here," he said. "But the climate was much warmer back then. We had rhinos. We had camels. We had sabertooth cats."
The scientist said the climate in the Bitterroot was not only warmer, but wetter too.
"This is fairly important because we've got a fair amount of skull here," he said, pointing to the spot where the fossil was found. "It's useful to science. But we need the whole thing to be able to tell all the details of the animal and how it might have lived."
Hanson pointed to several white spots in the bank which could be indications of a skull.
He said it will help paint a better picture of the Bitterroot 5 million to 10 million years ago.
Rhino fossils have been found in Montana before, but discoveries are unusual.
"We had rhinos clear up into this area of the state," he said, "which is kind of on the northern fringes of their known fossil record. Most of them that we've known before came from Nebraska and Colorado and places to the south."
Hanson said 5 million to 10 million years ago the terrain would have been fairly similar.
"We already had big mountain ranges on either side of the valley," he said. "But we would have had less conifers and more deciduous trees and shrubs."
Hanson said the fossil find could help scientists better understand what the whole environment was like back in that time frame.
Miller is excited about finding the fossil. He said it opens up an interesting perspective on the valley's ancient history.
"We are," he said, "just recent immigrants to this landscape."
In a few days the Bitterroot Irrigation District will fill the canal with water for the season. The site where the remains of the fossilized teleoceras were found will be under water until the season ends.
Hanson plans to come back next fall with a crew of scientists to investigate the site once the water is gone.