College Students Unearth Massive Triceratops Skull

On an annual summer fossil collecting trip, the undergraduates struck it big in South Dakota

Triceratops excavation
Paleontologist David Schmidt (left) and a crew of student volunteers worked together to find and excavate a huge Triceratops skull in South Dakota. Westminster College

A group of undergraduates and their paleontology professor discovered a seven-foot, 3,000-pound Triceratops skull in the Badlands of South Dakota, reports Shahla Farzan for St. Louis Public Radio.

In the summer of 2019, David Schmidt, a paleontologist at Westminster College in Missouri, had just arrived in the Badlands of South Dakota with a crew of students for their annual fossil collecting trip when park rangers asked if the group could come take a look at something spotted by a rancher a few months earlier.

"I just keep telling people, we were really in the right place at the right time," Schmidt tells Olivia Garrett of the Fulton Sun.

When Schmidt and the students arrived at the site, they immediately noticed the bone that had caught the rancher’s eye: "It was kind of long and cylindrical,” Schmidt tells the Fulton Sun. “The first words that came out of our mouth was, 'That looks like the horn from a triceratops.'"

But they couldn’t be sure. Despite the tantalizing bone protruding from the slope, Schmidt and his students weren’t allowed to start digging—the rangers needed to be sure the fossil lay on the federally managed Grand River National Grassland and obtain proper legal clearance to excavate.

Finally, this summer Schmidt and his students were allowed to come and find out what else lay beneath the surface. Though plans for students to participate in the dig for school credit were derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the group was able to move forward on a volunteer basis, “camping safely outside the entire two months,” according to a statement.

Beginning this June, the team returned to the specimen brimming with anticipation. Schmidt and the students carefully burrowed into the Badlands sandstone with pickaxes and shovels with increasing disbelief.

“As we continued to uncover more parts of the skull, I was in denial,” Schmidt tells St. Louis Public Radio. “I was thinking, ‘This can't be a skull. How lucky would I be? That probably only happens to a very tiny fraction of people on this planet. Like, I can't be one of those.’”

Two months of excavation revealed the 66-million-year-old fossil was indeed the skull of a species called Triceratops prorsus. The group named the fossil “Shady” after the nearby community of Shadehill.

The skull has now been encased in plaster and shipped 800 miles to Westminster College for study. But Schmidt says more bones still need to be dug up at the site.

“We were uncovering more and more bones, but we got to a point where we couldn't collect any more,” Schmidt tells St. Louis Public Radio. “We feel like, based on what we've seen so far, we may have quite a bit of the skeleton there, which is very, very exciting.”

The skull and the site in South Dakota will provide ongoing research opportunities for undergraduates at Westminster College, and perhaps offer some clues about the life of this titan of the Cretaceous.