Rise of the reptiles

Striking paydirt via fossil fossicking

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  • Published 20231107
  • ISBN: 978-1-922212-89-4
  • Extent: 207pp
  • Paperback, ePub, PDF, Kindle compatible

NOVEMBER 6, 2014: Palaeontologist Craig Pfister stands by a bleak encampment on the windswept grasslands of Eastern Montana, making notes in his pocket-sized field journal. Tomorrow he will pack up his tent, caravan and truck, and head back to Madison, Wisconsin. This year, as dig season comes to a close for the winter, Craig has acquired an extra passenger for the journey home. Or at least, part of one. Two months prior, he noticed a pelvic bone protruding from the sandstone rock that dominates the geology of this vast, empty place. Further investigation revealed an entire, virtually intact triceratops specimen entombed within the landscape. Excavation began and would continue until October the following year. In the meantime, and with the weather closing in, Craig hastily wrote: Season ended with removal of front limbs, scapula, complete skull and tibia.

Eight years later, in March 2022, an exhibition showcasing that same triceratops, the most complete example ever discovered, opened at Melbourne Museum. This extraordinarily beautiful and scientifically important fossilised dinosaur had been purchased by Museums Victoria for the princely sum of $3 million, a price that now seems like a bargain given how much dinosaur remains sell for on the open market. Horridus, as the dinosaur is now called – the sex of the creature is unknown, as is often the case in dinosaur fossils, where indications of dimorphism are difficult to discern – is 87 per cent complete. The head, incorporating the horns, frill, eye sockets, snout and beak, is 99 per cent complete. The fossilised bones are a deep, chocolate-brown colour, unique for a reptile that died sixty-seven million years ago. Since the specimen was uncovered in a former riverbed, it is assumed sediment mingled with bone matter as it turned to rock during the two million years Horridus had to sink into the mire prior to an asteroid wiping out every last one of its fellow ceratopsians.

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