MSU President's Column for Traill County Tribune

August 3, 2019 

Mayville State’s Michael Kjelland making an impact on campus and around the world

Dr. Michael Kjelland, Assistant Professor of Biology at Mayville State, has been at the center of a media frenzy this week. He was part of a team that unearthed a partial 65 million-year-old triceratops skull in the Badlands of southwestern North Dakota recently. All of this excitement is definitely a reason for all of us to be “Comet Proud!”

Kjelland made the discovery together with Harrison Duran, a fifth-year biology student at the University of California, Merced. The two, who share an interest in dinosaurs, met at a conference. Kjelland has been going to the Hell Creek Formation, an area rich in fossils spanning Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, off and on for about 20 years. He invited Duran to join him on a paleontology dig there this summer.

They discovered the skull they have named Alice, in honor of the landowner on whose land they were working, on June 4, three days after they began their dig. The skull was found with the base of its left horn partially exposed above ground.

It took a week to extract Alice from the ground. Kjelland said it was a painstaking process because the skull was preserved in material that made for a brittle fossilization. He said, “It’s basically go half an inch, glue, brush; go half an inch, glue, brush.” The skull was wrapped in a memory foam mattress to be transported to Kjelland’s lab near Valley City, N.D., where it will undergo further research.

Dr. Kjelland is hoping to eventually display her in a place where she’ll have maximum viewership, such as at a museum or possibly at Fargo’s Hector International Airport.

News of the discovery of Alice has gone worldwide via television, newspaper, and social media, putting not only Kjelland and Duran in the spotlight, but also Mayville State University. The story has appeared on CNN and Good Morning America and in The New York Times, as well as with local and regional outlets including the Grand Forks Herald and the Forum, and WDAY and KFYR television. The story has aired in Norway, Poland, France, Australia, and other countries.

Kjelland will be out in the Badlands until some time in August, working to extract another triceratops skull he discovered last year. This one will be known as Skull X until officially named. Several young people have been given an opportunity to join him at the excavation site and gain hands-on experience with a paleontology dig. Kjelland made his first triceratops discovery in about 1992, when the skull named Gundy was found in South Dakota. 

Together with Harrison Duran, Kjelland has formed a nonprofit organization called Fossil Excavators. The organization focuses on the discovery and preservation of fossils, as well as on the environment and issues related to conservationism. Learn more at

While Kjelland’s work with paleontology and dinosaurs is most definitely exciting, it’s not the only avenue through which he has made an international impact. In the fall of 2018, he made his second keynote presentation at a conference in Tuxpan, Veracruz, Mexico which was attended by about 600 people from places such as Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, and others. His presentation was titled “Current Biotechnologies and Those of the Future: Cloning and genetic Modification of Livestock and Wildlife.” Last spring, he gave two presentations at the First International Reproduction Symposium – Update on the Use of Bovine Assisted Reproductive Techniques. The symposium took place in Linares, Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

Kjelland joined the faculty at Mayville State University in August of 2018. Prior to being at Mayville State, he worked for the U.S. Army Engineer Research Development Center and Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb. His research interests include biology, ecology, natural resources management, animal science, and reproductive science, among others.

Congratulations, Dr. Kjelland, for the great work you’re doing, not only with the students at Mayville State University, but also in places across the state and throughout the world!