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Friday, January 19, 2018

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Scientists could learn a lot from Makoshika triceratops

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Following expeditions into Makoshika State Park the last two summers, a Museum of the Rockies team has wrapped up its excavation of a triceratops discovered a couple of years ago by local amateur paleontologist Dave Fuqua.

Dr. John Scanella, who replaced the legendary Dr. Jack Horner as MOR paleontology curator, presented his team’s findings from the excavation in a program Wednesday night at the Makoshika group use shelter.

During their initial “exploratory excavation” last August, Scanella and the MOR team uncovered several large pieces of the prehistoric creature, including a jaw bone, complete shoulder blade, part of the brain case,  part of the back of the skull, pieces of the frill, pieces of ribs and vertebrae and two of the animal’s distinctive horns.

Buoyed by those finds, Scanella brought an even larger team out to Makoshika this August to try and uncover more of the fossil. Though he went into the dig with high hopes, Scanella said as they dug deeper into the hillside it became apparent that they had likely already retrieved all the large pieces of the triceratops that were left. They recovered more bits and pieces of fossilized bone, but unfortunately weren’t able to find much more.

Nevertheless, Scanella said there’s still a great deal of scientific value in what they were able to recover from this particular triceratops.

“Even though this wasn’t a complete triceratops, which is rare, it’s still a scientifically important specimen,” he said. “We will continue to learn from that specimen.”

Scanella explained that the value of the find is in that it adds another specimen to help he and other paleontologists further study and understand the biology and evolution of triceratops. He noted that unlike most other dinosaurs, which are only known from either a single specimen or a small handful of specimens, hundreds of triceratops fossils have been uncovered in the past century, which gives scientists a wider window into triceratops than they have for just about any other dinosaur.

“This is really exciting, because when you have a really high number of specimens, this allows you to discover variation in dinosaurs,” Scanella said.

He explained to the audience how he and Horner, by virtue of the large sample size of triceratops specimens, were able to test and prove their hypotheses that the shape of triceratops’ horns and frill changed as the animals aged from juveniles to adults. 

Scanella also explained how he is currently working to prove or disprove his working hypotheses that torosaurus, a dinosaur which looks much like triceratops but has long been considered a separate species, was actually just the fully mature or elderly version of triceratops. He noted that hypotheses would be easy to disprove, because all that would have to happen is for someone to find the fossil of a juvenile torosaurus. No one ever has, however, so every triceratops fossil uncovered might hold some vital clue which could help prove his hypotheses.

Scanella said he’s fairly confident the triceratops they have been digging out of Makoshika was a “fairly mature, fairly large” animal based on the shape of its horns and what they uncovered of its frill.

“It’s on the older side, it’s not a juvenile,” he said.

What the specimen can tell them remains to be seen. He said the large pieces the MOR recovered last summer have been in preparation since they were collected, so “we really haven’t had a chance to sit down with it and get to know it yet.”

When they are able to really sit down and study the bones, however, Scanella said he thinks they will have something of value to tell him and other scientists about the biology and life-cycle of triceratops and the prehistoric environment they lived in.

“There’s some exciting pieces of the anatomy of that animal even though it’s broken into pieces and incomplete,” he said. “So it’s going to be a really awesome source of information when we compare it to other triceratops.”

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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