Self-taught dino digger finds success in Harding County, SD

Published: Sep. 15, 2023 at 6:45 PM CDT
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HARDING COUNTY, S.D. (KFYR) - The Dakotas’ fertile soil is good for more than growing corn and wheat. It helps preserve millions of dinosaur bones.

Out here in Harding County, South Dakota, these hills are hiding something: fossils. John Carter hunts for fragments of animals that were alive millions of years ago.

“It comes with experience. I can usually spot a triceratops claw from 80 yards away,” said Carter of Buffalo, South Dakota.

Carter has found more bones than he can list.

“I’ve found lots of triceratops skulls and a few T-Rex teeth and some T-Rex bones here and there. I found the largest, most complete triceratops skeleton, Horridus,” said Carter.

What makes this dinosaur detective special is he has no formal paleontology education.

“I hung around with some of the best in the world for decades, learning the trade,” said Carter.

Instead of getting a four-year degree, then going on to grad school or getting a Ph.D., Carter followed experts around and trained his eyes to spot fossils.

“It’s sort of special, I’ve always made my living off the land... working on something else has seen before in their life. You’re preserving it for history and museums. All the really good stuff ends up in museums,” said Carter.

He’s been part of many dinosaur documentaries, including work on a National Geographic program.

Carter worked as a stunt digger on many big-name dinosaur digs like Dakota the Dino Mummy.

“I worked on prepping the main body and the tail. It was very exciting finding these tiny little scales and prepping them out with special lighting and special tools,” said Carter.

He also helped with Sue, the most extensive and preserved t-rex fossil ever found. In Harding County, there have been at least five t-rex skeletons dug up.

“I haven’t ever found one yet, I want to. I keep looking.”

Carter has no plans of stopping his passion for hunting for bones in these hills.

Carter is a carpenter by trade, and with the money he makes he buys supplies to dig up more fossils.