Dinosaur bones believed to be from one the coolest of all dinosaurs, Triceratops, were discovered by workers at a construction site in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, in May. Crews had been digging at that site near a retirement community for five years and never found a thing. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle of May one of the workers reported to the project director that they’d uncovered what he thought were dinosaur bones. The director and crew all had a look, debating whether they might be petrified wood rather than bones. Ultimately they decided to contact experts at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to find out for sure.
When paleontologists examined the discovery, they recognized the unearthed limb bone and ribs as having belonged to a horned dinosaur, but further investigation was necessary to determine which type. There were several species of horned and armored herbivores. In order to pin down the type, paleontologists needed to find at least one of the three bones that made up the heavy shield on the back on the head.
The museum team excavated the find site and unearthed more bones, including ones from the arm and shoulder, parts of the skull, shin bones and pieces of pelvis. About 30% of the animal has been recovered, enough to determine that the bones are between 66 and 68 million years old and probably belonged to a Triceratops, and a big one at that.
“The truth is: we’re not 100% sure it’s a Triceratops at this point. So there’s a chance we could find out it’s something completely different, which I think is cool,” Bastien said. “We can’t rule out the possibility it’s a completely different species no one’s ever seen before.”
At this point, however, the museum is calling it a ‘Triceratops.’
Volunteers in the fossil preparation lab (within the museum) have already started working on clearing off parts of the dinosaur’s face.
“[We have] a good portion of the skull, which is really important in telling us how the animal lived,” Bastien said. “We were all surprised to see how massive, how beautiful those bones are”.
The excavation was so productive that the planned two weeks of digging extended well into a second month. Because there is no federal law regarding the preservation and excavation of paleontological or archaeological remains on private land, the construction crew had no legal obligation even to report the find, and certainly not to delay their work to allow excavation. Thankfully they were civic-minded enough to let the museum’s team do their thing and recover all the bones they could.
The fossils that have been recovered will now be fully excavated from the bedrock (they were raised en bloc, encased in plaster for their safety) and cleaned at the museum. The process is expected to take at least a year.