On June 6th, 1929, renowned fossil collector Charles M. Sternberg sat writing in his journal in a Saskatchewan field camp recording the first day of his team’s summer fossil prospecting. He noted the work done, the area’s rock formations and the fossil specimens collected.
Of particular note was the first dinosaur fossil found, the partial skull of an exceptionally large Triceratops prorsus.
Referring to the bony frill around this horned dinosaur’s neck, Sternberg finished the journal entry dramatically: “This is the largest crest I have seen.”
Fast-forward to 2015 and Canadian Museum of Nature dinosaur palaeontologist Jordan Mallon was reading Sternberg’s field journals.
Sternberg’s big crest comment caught his eye—and his imagination. Could this possibly be the largest Triceratops ever collected? What made the possibility particularly exciting is that the answer lay a hundred meters away in the museum’s collection.
The specimen still lay wrapped in the protective layers of plaster applied to it in 1929. Dr. Mallon proposed we prepare the specimen and put Sternberg’s observation to the test.
This is where I enter the story. I am the coordinator of our fossil preparation program, and so it’s now my job to ready the fossil for scientific examination by opening the plaster field jackets and preparing the fossil.
This will not be an easy task.
The skull is so large that when it was collected it was wrapped in two separate plaster field jackets. The larger, a 650-kg section, includes two thirds of the frill, the top of the dinosaur’s cranium, and the two long brow horns. A smaller, 400-kg section contains the remaining third of the Triceratops‘ frill.
Preparing any fossil comes with its own challenges, but the preparation of the Triceratops skull will be especially difficult.
While completely wrapped in its field jacket, the larger portion of the skull is safely supported on all sides. However, we know that given the massive size and weight of the skull, the jacket might give way during opening if not properly supported from the exterior, and the skull could tear itself apart.
So, we decided to begin by opening the section containing the smaller portion of the frill. This is permitting us to assess the fossil’s overall condition and stability, informing our course of action for safely opening the larger field jacket.
Now, five months into the project, progress has been slow but steady.
There is a layer of thick stone covering the fossil, and we’ve discovered that the majority of the underside of the frill is fractured but repairable.
With hard work, a lot of adhesive, and a little luck, we’ll know more in the upcoming months, and one day hope to add an exciting footnote to Charles M. Sternberg’s old journal entry.
Stay tuned for an update!