A 66 million-year-old triceratops skeleton joined the collection of the Daniel M. Fisk Museum of Natural History in the Strosacker Science Center today in an unveiling ceremony at noon.
The skeleton, named Donna, is more than 60 percent complete, and joins “Linda” the edmontosaurus in the museum. Professor of Biology Anthony Swinehart, curator of the Fisk Museum, said triceratops bones are relatively common in dinosaur territory, but the bone configuration of this particular skeleton is rare, and there are less than 10 triceratops skeletons like it. The addition of the triceratops makes Hillsdale one of two or three places in the entire state of Michigan where real-bone dinosaurs are on display, Swinehart said.
“Most collegiate institutions have gotten rid of their museum collections, while Hillsdale College has been rebuilding its museum and associated collections,” Swinehart said in an email. “That seems fitting to me. While many others naively do away with natural history collections as vestiges of an ‘antiquated discipline,’ Hillsdale College — being the standard-bearer for traditional education — continues to honor this traditional science and recognizes that it still has great value, both intrinsically and in terms of valuable applications to problem solving.”
The skeleton was discovered on private property in North Dakota in 2015 by Jim Braswell, an amateur fossil collector. Swinehart and three Hillsdale students, Lily Carville ’17, Matthew Hoenig ’17, and Randall Rush ’17 helped with the excavation process. The skeleton was donated by Caitlin and Tyler Horning ’06. Although the exact monetary value of the skeleton was not made public, Swinehart said the skeleton is incredibly valuable.
Associate Professor of Anthropology Steve Nicklas at the University of North Georgia, a colleague of Swinehart’s, and his students also helped to excavate the skeleton and prepare it for display.
“He was the one that cleaned and glued and stabilized the bones and put it in the mount,” Swinehart said.
Carville credits Swinehart for allowing students to play a significant role in the excavation of the skeleton.
“A big shoutout goes to Dr. Swinehart for bringing students to help him,” Carville said. “He could’ve gone on his own or just brought some of his friends and colleagues, but instead he brought Hillsdale students and made it an incredible learning opportunity.”
Carville, who wrote her senior biology thesis on the environmental conditions near the skeleton, said half the skeleton was mostly intact, while the other half had eroded away.
“A lot of the work was just figuring out where the bones were,” Carville said. “I kind of expected it to be like ‘Jurassic Park,’ where you are brushing off the skeleton with a toothbrush, but a lot of it was just going at a hill with pickaxes.”
Carville and Swinehart said the triceratops was most likely at the edge of a river when it died and was covered by a flash flood event.
A variety of conditions must exist for a fossil to form, making their occurence relatively rare, Tyler Horning said.
“You think about all the factors that go into having such a well-preserved skeleton,” Horning said. “It’s been in the ground like that for 66 million years, even with all the changes in environment and stone piling on top of it. That’s pretty amazing.”
The Triceratops horridus were plant-eating, horned dinosaurs alive during the last two million years of the Mesozoic Era, called the “Age of Reptiles,” and died off when the impact from a large meteor ended the reign of the dinosaurs, Swinehart said. They lived in what is now Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Alberta, Canada.
Triceratops reached a maximum length of about 29 feet and weighed up to 12 tons.
Braswell gave the Triceratops horridus displayed in the Fisk Museum the name Donna in honor of his wife. The skeleton’s skull measures 7 feet across and has a hole in it from injuries during its lifetime, Swinehart said.
“The frill that they have on the back of the skull has a hole in it from fighting with another triceratops,” Swinehart said. “Probably it was two males fighting, but we don’t know if it was a male or female dinosaur.”
The fossil also contains an articulated arm, meaning that all the bones in one of the forearms were preserved — a rare find that will help paleontologists determine the triceratops’ posture and how it used its limbs to walk, Swinehart said.
“We can find a random toe bone and say it’s a toe bone, but sometimes we aren’t able to distinguish which finger it came from or which exact position it is,” Swinehart said. “If we have that and we know exactly which finger it came from and so on, we can look at muscle attachment sites, and that can help us determine exactly how they walked. So it’s a really cool detective story, and there’s only been one paper ever published on it from one specimen that’s at the Black Hills Institute Museum in South Dakota.”
Carville said the skeleton could also be used to help determine the number of different species of triceratops that existed. Formerly, researchers believed there were eight species, but it’s possible that some of these distinctions were related to whether the triceratops were juvenile or mature when they died, Carville said.
The skeleton is displayed as a two-dimensional relief mount in the museum, with the skeleton partially embedded in an artificial matrix similar to the rocks where the triceratops was originally discovered. The missing bones from the skeleton were filled in using casts from other triceratops specimens, Swinehart said.
“We now have two mostly real-bone dinosaurs in a 40-foot long room,” Swinehart said. “There are some states that don’t have a dinosaur in the whole state. We can probably rightfully say we have the smallest dinosaur museum in the world.”
Small pieces of the triceratops bone not needed for the display will be available for sale for $2 following the unveiling of the skeleton, Swinehart said. All proceeds from the sales will go toward the museum.
“My colleague ran into one of the senior paleontologists at the Smithsonian while we were out there on the dig and told him about the articulated limb,” Swinehart said. “The guy from the Smithsonian said, ‘We don’t have anything like that.’ So this is really cool.”