I'm a museum educator with an eye for paleontology, science history, animals and the occasional bit of pop culture nonsense. My long-winded blog is here.
Taxon: Triceratops horridus
Specimen Number: BHI 6220
Year Created: 2012
Dimensions: 25 feet long
In 2002, a Black Hills Institute team retrieved the Triceratops known as “Lane” from private land near Lusk, Wyoming – the same area where Charles Sternberg found the classic “mummified” Edmontosaurus in 1908. Like the Edmontosaurus, Lane was found with fossilized impressions of skin and other integument covering large portions of its body. Surprisingly, this specimen revealed that Triceratops was almost certainly adorned with sizable quills or spines, which were spread evenly across its back and haunches.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science purchased the Lane skeleton and integument impressions, both of which have been on display in the museum’s enormous (30,000 square feet!) Hall of Paleontology since 2012. Exhibit curator Robert Bakker specifically instructed the BHI team to mount Lane in an energetic trotting pose. With two feet off the ground and its forelimbs held erect and under its body, the Lane mount exudes speed and strength - and is a far cry from the sprawling AMNH Triceratops. At 85% complete, Lane is the single most intact Triceratops found to date. Nevertheless, a full description of the specimen and its skin impressions has not yet been published.
Thanks to all you awesome people, it looks like I passed 300 followers recently! Here’s a random museum dinosaur from my hard drive:
That’s “Gorgeous George” the Daspletosaurus in the lobby of the Field Museum circa 1960, in a spot now occupied by Sue the T. rex. While I’m at it, here’s George in his new digs upstairs and Sue holding court in the lobby.
Dinosaur 13 is a powerful and surprisingly moving documentary about the debacle surrounding Sue the T. rex. It’s important story to tell, if only to make sure the mistakes made are not made again. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speak about the emotional aspect of finding and caring for a fossil quite so poignantly.
That said, the film almost completely avoids the inherent problems with commercial fossil collection, and badly misrepresents commercial collectors’ relationship with academic paleontologists. I’ll be the first to say that the Black Hills Institute and the Larsons have done some terrific work (making affordable Stan the T. rex replicas available for museums worldwide, for example), but you can’t sugarcoat the fact that collecting fossils for profit is fundamentally against the interests of paleontology as science.
The film only deals with this controversy for about 60 seconds, but there’s one particularly absurd line which alleges that academics took over paleontology in the 70s and have been trying to muscle out the free-market competition ever since. This is nonsense. In the early 20th century, paleontology was largely about collecting cool trophies, and valuable data was literally dynamited away. The rise of academic paleontology changed it into a legitimate, data-driven science. Today, paleontologists give us valuable insight into how the world we know came to be…we’ve come a long way from just being about a parade of dead curiosities. Unfortunately, commercial fossil collecting brings back the trophy-hunting mentality. The high price tag of Sue in particular has inspired legions of fossil poachers with far fewer scruples than the Larsons to loot public lands in search for their own $8 million payday. Every fossil collected and sold as a trophy is a major loss to science, to public museums, and to all of us.
I did enjoy the film, and I think it provides a much-needed look into the political realities of paleontology. I only wish the filmmakers had taken a wider view of the events it covers.