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A Lost World Found

November 7, 1997

Piece by piece, Geology Museum’s newest dinosaur takes shape

Student working on Triceratops fossil
Jonathan Hendricks, a senior in zoology, uses a dental pick to chip away traces of sediment from the pelvic bone of a Triceratops. A hulking upper leg bone (foreground, right) is next on the list. Much fossil preparation work is surprisingly low-tech, involving tools such as picks and toothbrushes. Hendricks also has at his disposal a powerful pneumatic pick and sealed air chamber, in which he directs a spray of fine white powder to literally sand-blast rock from bone.

In the dusty disorder of the preparation room at UW–Madison’s Geology Museum, formless chunks of plaster and sediment are slowly giving way to the sleek, black bones of a Triceratops.

Although the final product is years from completion, the museum has its first prepared bones on display from the 1994 and 1995 paleontology digs in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana. And museum staff is making steady progress on dozens more.

In a glass case near the museum’s entrance, visitors can get an early glimpse of what may eventually be integrated into a 25-foot Triceratops skeleton. On display is a portion of the massive head shield; a brow horn and nasal horn; and a humerus (upper front leg) bone. The bones have a lustrous black color that naturally shines in their petrified state.

Close inspection of the leg bone reveals a break along one edge, with puncture marks that suggest the work of a Cretaceous-era scavenger.

“We eventually hope to create a composite skeleton, starting with the five-foot skull,” says Klaus Westphal, director of the museum. “We have about 30 percent of a Triceratops from one site alone, and many more bones from other sites that will be pulled together.”

Missing bones from the digs will be fabricated from plaster casts. Westphal says complete skeletons from the field are rare, and even a 50-percent recovery is impressive.

While the display gives an early taste, the full banquet of bones fills more than a half-dozen shelves in the preparation room, awaiting the precise tools and careful hands of student workers. Chris Ott, a geology senior who has been working steadily on the Triceratops project, says he devotes approximately 70 hours of detail work to each bone.

“It’s kind of nerve-racking,” Ott says. “You don’t want to break or damage anything, since it’s all going on display.”

Ott uses a pneumatic pick, with a powerful stream of compressed air that removes sediment from cracks and fissures. The room is also equipped with a sealed air chamber, which has a nozzle that works like a sand-blaster, but uses a fine white powder.

The real nitty-gritty is done with hand tools like dental picks and even toothbrushes. “The more nooks and crannies there are, the harder they are to clean,” he says.

Westphal estimates a completed project would take about five years, with a price tag likely to top $125,000.

The museum’s paleontology crew made a national splash in 1994, when it unearthed one of paleontology’s rarest finds, a Tyrannosaurus rex. The crew recovered part of the back of the skull, along with vertebrae, rib and pelvis bones. It is one of fewer than 20 T. rex specimens ever recorded.

But Westphal says the T. rex project is impeded by stubborn mineral deposits that are literally fused onto the bone’s brittle surface. Later this year, staff from the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota will visit the museum and offer advice on preparing the T. rex bones.

Tags: research