TOPEKA — A Kansas fossil hunter says a skull recovered in 2012 from a field in South Dakota is thought to be a new species and genus of ceratopsian, a family of dinosaur that lived mostly during the Cretaceous Period and includes the triceratops.
Alan Dietrich, a Lawrence artist who owns the fossil, said the skull is “extraordinary” because of the placement of its 17-inch nose horn, as well as other unique characteristics.
“It’s one of the biggest (fossils) in the world, and I think it will be snapped up by an American museum,” Dietrich said.
The fossil skull was discovered in 2012 by John Carter, a professional fossil hunter for Harding County in South Dakota.
“I had leased some ground to look for fossils,” said Carter, of Buffalo, S.D. “It was in an ironstone pile, and one little piece of bone was sticking out.”
Carter said he poked his shovel into an earthen mound and hit something about a foot down. He inserted his shovel into other areas of the ground and eventually saw a “big round edge” that was rusty-looking.
“I thought I’d better treat it like a triceratops frill,” he said.
With the aid of some other men, Carter removed the skull — covered with 4 to 6 inches of ironstone — from the ground. Efforts to stabilize the fossil were made, including wrapping the skull in two to three layers of burlap strips soaked in plaster of paris.
Carter said he used a Bobcat loader to place the 3,200-pound plaster- and ironstone-covered skull on a flat-bed snowmobile trailer pulled by his Ford Ranger truck. He transported the fossil to a Black Hills Institute of Geological Research field station, and eventually notified potential “bone buyers” of the skull’s existence.
“Alan Dietrich jumped on it,” he said.
Dietrich said he purchased the skull Oct. 22, 2012, and by the next day had hauled it to the laboratory of fossil preparer Neal Larson, a geologist, paleontologist and president of Larson Paleo Unlimited in Hill City, S.D.
“Alan contacted me about the specimen,” Larson said, adding he also received photographs of the fossil. “I didn’t know it was a new species, but I knew it was a big ceratopsian skull. It was only one-half of the skull; the other (part of the) skull had weathered away.”
Larson said he began working on the skull in March 2013. He soon realized his pneumatic tools weren’t going to remove the ironstone very quickly, so he had to invest in more job-appropriate equipment. After working approximately 5,200 hours to remove the ironstone and plaster of paris, he showed the skull to Dietrich and asked if he wanted him to continue. Dietrich gave the thumbs-up to proceed.
Larson stabilized the skull with a special glue designed for the preservation of fossils.
“Between the glue and tools and the tenacity of Alan, the specimen got prepared,” he said.
Larson realized the skull was a new species once the rock was removed and he saw the size of the nasal horn and its placement. Ken Carpenter, former curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and now director of the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum, confirmed the fossil was a new species of the ceratopsian family.
“It has an enormous hole in the frill, which makes it different, and the angle (of the frill) is unusual,” Larson said.
With the rock removed, the fossil is 89.5 inches long and stands about 6 feet. It weighs approximately 600 to 750 pounds.
Dietrich and Larson said it is important the fossil be displayed in a museum, preferably in North America, so it will be “in the public domain” and articles describing the rare skull can be published in scientific journals.
Dietrich said he might display the fossil skull at the Denver Coliseum Mineral, Fossil and Gem Show in mid-September and the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase early next year.