About a year ago, I briefly joined the Carthage College and Burpee Museum of Natural History field crews as they searched the Hell Creek Formation around Ekalaka, Montana. There were bits of Triceratops strewn across the landscape. Even though I only spent a few days among the rolling grasslands and islands of Late Cretaceous outcrop, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t see at least a fragment of the great three-horned herbivore–from isolated teeth to skulls that had crumbled apart, Triceratops was a constant companion. Indeed, as Jack Horner and colleagues affirmed in a census of Hell Creek fossils last year, Triceratops is the most commonly-found dinosaur in this swath of Late Cretaceous North America.
Move a little to the north, though, and the trail of Triceratops fades. While I was virtually tripping over Triceratops everywhere I went in eastern Montana, the gigantic ceratopsian isn’t quite so abundant in Saskatchewan and is a rarity in the Late Cretaceous rock of Alberta. So while paleontologists have already discovered many Triceratops specimens from the United States, Canadian paleontologists made headlines last week when they found what appears to be an especially big representative of this famous dinosaur in Alberta.
The CBC, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and other news outlets have covered the story. Earlier this summer, former Royal Tyrrell Museum employee Tim Schowalter stumbled across the Triceratops site on an old road cut near Drumheller (a place famous for its proximity to dinosaur-rich badlands). From there, Royal Tyrrell Museum paleontologist François Therrien led the excavation of the Triceratops “log jam.” Included in the lot are large vertebrae and ribs over six feet long, indicating that this was a Triceratops of considerable size. Unfortunately, though, the site contains only a partial skeleton, and the dinosaur’s skull seems to be missing. The official Royal Tyrrell Museum Twitter account said that “there are some odd looking bones that could be cranial”, but explained that the institution’s paleontologists will have to prepare the bones before they can be sure.
Without a skull, this new Triceratops won’t have much effect on the ongoing debate over whether Torosaurus is really just a grown-up Triceratops or a distinct genus or dinosaur. That discussion has relied almost entirely on the skulls of these dinosaurs–as far as we know, the only reliable way to tell the two forms apart. But, as Therrien commented in some news reports, the newly-uncovered dinosaur may help paleontologists determine whether there were significant variations between Triceratops that lived in Montana, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The dinosaur is a new point of reference as paleontologists examine the record of Triceratops. And, after all, every dinosaur skeleton contains various clues about how that individual lived. The trick is carefully extracting those threads in order to flesh out the ancient lives of the dinosaurs.