June 21, 2013

Bringing a Triceratops to Seattle

Dinosaurs capture the attention of museum visitors of all ages. (Watch our 30-second Dino Shake video to see just how much a few of our staff members and their kids love dinosaurs.)
Here at the Burke, we have several dinosaurs in our galleries, but we also maintain a vertebrate paleontology collection with more than 50,000 specimens. Nearly 90% of these specimens are fossil mammals, with the remaining 10% comprising dinosaurs, fossil fish, fossil birds, fossil marine reptiles, and other fossil reptiles. 
Researchers study these specimens to learn about the life before us, as do University of Washington (UW) undergraduate and graduate students taking paleontology and evolution courses.

So, when a team led by Christian Sidor, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke, discovered a Triceratops in a rock formation in eastern Wyoming, he set out to bring more of the iconic dinosaur to Seattle. 

A young visitor admires a Triceratops in the Burke gallery
Photo by Carol Swales
Christian turned to Microryza, a crowd-sourced funding platform for scientific research that was co-founded by one of his former UW students, to raise money to cover the cost of excavating the specimen and transporting it back to the Burke. The campaign was a huge success, and "Bring a Triceratops to Seattle" became the first fully-funded Microryza project thanks to support from nearly 40 dino-loving backers!
After severe drought and fire risk in Wyoming delayed the dig for more than a year, Christian and a team from the Burke were finally able to hit the field and dig for the Triceratops earlier this month.

These are their blog entries from the field:

Preparing for the field

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Christian Sidor:
Today, my graduate student Brandon Peecook and I put together our collecting gear (hammers, chisels, 300 pounds of plaster, burlap, etc.). It's all waiting on the Burke Museum's loading dock, ready for us to load it in the truck first thing tomorrow morning–and then we're off!  It will take us a couple of days to get to eastern Wyoming, so we expect the digging to begin on Friday.

The team has arrived!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Brandon Peecook:
Well two days of driving and nearly 1,200 miles later Chris and I have arrived at our cabin in Wyoming. Waiting for us was Burke Museum Research Associate Tom Kaye and we were shortly joined by Burke volunteer Gary Livingston. The drive was beautiful and we even got to spend time with a paleontology colleague working at Montana State University in Bozeman on Wednesday night. The area around the cabin is teeming with antelope, deer, birds, and cattle. We are settling in here this evening and planning our first day at the Triceratops dig site for early tomorrow morning!

First day with the Triceratops

Friday, June 7, 2013

Brandon Peecook:
This morning the team set off early to relocate the 2008 Triceratops site. After looking for a long unused two-track through the grass we managed to find it. Bones discovered in 2008, and then covered with a protective layer of tin foil and dirt, were uncovered and they look to be in good condition. The hillside around the covered bones is littered with pieces of Triceratops ribs and head frill.

After relocating those bones, our mission was to see if the bones continued into the hillside (which means more Triceratops- maybe even a full skeleton!). After removing a fair amount of overburden - the rock over the rock layer containing the bones we're interested in - we continued excavations and found several new bones, including vertebrae and ribs.

It was a hard day's work and we were finally chased off the land by a wandering thunderstorm. All in all, it was a pretty excellent start to what should be a very productive trip to the Upper Cretaceous of Wyoming.

Rain delay

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Christian Sidor:
Last year there was not enough rain. This year, too much – at least as far as we're concerned (although the local ranchers undoubtedly love it). The thunderstorms that hurried our departure yesterday continued overnight and soaked the area with the Triceratops. So, we're letting things dry out today and will be back at it tomorrow. In the meantime, we'll spend the day looking for Eocene-aged fossils (mostly mammals) in the Chadron Formation.

Bones up!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Brandon Peecook:
Today was a very productive day! After letting the roads dry out the team made our way to the Triceratops site. Our team grew today with the addition of Mary Dunnam of the Burke Museum Board of Directors. Right off the bat we got messy applying plaster jackets to a number of bones, including vertebrae, ribs, and part of the head shield. The process goes like this: we dig around the bones to get them on a pedestal, which we then wrap in plaster of Paris and burlap. Once that dries we can bust the base of the pedestal, flip the jacketed specimen, and plaster the other side for safe transfer back to Seattle.

While the plaster dried we did some exploring and discovered bones from at least three different dinosaurs, and one was a piece of armor from a rare ankylosaur (think of a plant eating tank with a clubbed tail). We collected those bones and then returned to the Triceratops to do our flipping. All in all we brought home six bones today and more will be brought out of the ground tomorrow!

Getting a head

Monday, June 10, 2013

Brandon Peecook:
The productivity continues! Today we completed plaster jackets for three of the bones, or series of bones, we had discovered so far. For this Triceratops we have collected ribs, a back vertebra, a series of fused neck vertebrae (they have to be strong to hold up that big head), parts of the head frill, and the right premaxilla (a toothless skull bone that surrounds the large nostril and attaches to the upper beak).

We also started making a jacket for a set of mystery bones - bones we can't quite identify yet. We think they are probably the bones containing the Triceratops' teeth, but we don't know if they're from the upper jaw, the lower jaw, or one of each! Today some team members went searching for more fossils as the plaster dried and they found partial remains of several new dinosaurs including a bone probably from a smaller Triceratops as well as some teeth from a meat-eater.

Triceratops in the bag

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Brandon Peecook:
Today was a big day as all of the remaining bones at the Triceratops site were collected or jacketed. Tomorrow all we have to do is pick up the remaining jackets (like the one with the mystery bones; see the photo) and take them to the truck. If you remember, I mentioned that members of our team scouted around the valley for other fossils and we have found quite a few.

We collected the bone belonging to a probable small Triceratops and began excavation of a very large limb bone (probably a humerus, or upper arm bone) of a duck-billed dinosaur, or hadrosaur. This was a pretty labor intensive day and many of us have blistered hands, but it's all worth it.

Hauling bones

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Christian Sidor:
We've been working at our Triceratops quarry and the surrounding valley for about a week and things are wrapping up. The first thing we did today was fetch our largest plaster jacket (containing the Triceratops maxilla and mystery bone) from the base of the valley and haul it up to the truck. We had to take several breaks on the way up the slope, but everything went smoothly.

Then Brandon and I continued to excavate the hadrosaur humerus and were eventually able to plaster it. After letting it dry for a while, we flipped the jacket and with Tom's help, wrangled it up the truck. We spent some time prospecting this afternoon and recovered a beautiful osteoderm (piece of bony armor) from an ankylosaur.

Mission accomplished

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Christian Sider:
The photo says it all. All of the Triceratops bones are packed up and ready to head back to Seattle tomorrow morning. Thanks again to all of our supporters!

What next?
The team will begin preparing the specimens by removing their field jackets the carefully chipping away the rock from fossilized bone in our prep lab using miniature jackhammers. For an idea of what that involves, watch this short time-lapse video to see the Burke's fossil preparator, Bruce Crowley, and volunteers working on a 49 million-year-old giant turtle fossil.

We'll make sure to post updates as the paleontology team prepares the Triceratops fossils for their debut at the Burke's Dino Day on March 8, 2014!

Posted by Cathy Britt
Digital Communications