By Colin Tiernan
Via Wyoming News Exchange
GLENROCK — She grew up just north of Glenrock, grazing in lush, lowland swamps. When she lumbered over to the creek for a drink, crocodiles and turtles lounged on the bank beside her. Unlike the squarish cattle and nimble pronghorn roaming today’s sagebrush, she was well equipped for battle, with a nine-foot-long head studded with long, hefty horns that would put today’s rhinos to shame. A large frill, with a couple of holes in it, protected her neck. Sixty-eight million years ago, she died of unknown causes.
Her name is Carol.
According to Glenrock Paleon Museum Director Sean Smith, Carol, a likely torosaur, is going to make Glenrock, Wyoming a destination for paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts worldwide. If she isn’t a torosaur, she could be the first find of a new species.
The Paleon currently has unearthed a good percentage of her bones and hopes to unearth more of her this summer.
“With this animal being as complete as it is, scientifically, we have bones that have never been found,” Sean explained. “We’re very confident it’s not triceratops – which is cool, but it’s a very common animal from the Cretaceous.”
“If we can find more of this animal, I mean a good share of this animal, especially if we find the skull, it’s a world-class find,” Paleon Executive Director Don Smith said. “We will have people coming in here from all over to actually view this.”
Torosaurs look quite similar to triceratops (they’re both huge and could have weighed roughly the same as African bush elephants), but with a few important distinctions. Take the frill, the flat, shield-like bone that extends out the back of a triceratops head. On a triceratops, that frill is thick and solid. On a torosaur it’s longer and thinner, and also has two big holes in it.
“To me, triceratops is more like ‘Make my day, I’ll take a predator on,’” Don said. “Torosaur is more big, flashy, scare the guy away.”
In Sean’s words, “(triceratops) is much more beefy.”
While the torosaur and triceratops genuses are closely related – they’re in the same family – one of them is far more rare than the other.
“For every 200 triceratops, you might find one piece of a torosaur,” Sean explained.
Sean said that when they got some of Carol’s bones out of the quarry and back in the lab, she didn’t seem quite like a triceratops.
Her neck bones weren’t quite right, because they weren’t fused. She had more slender ribs. Her shoulder blade was a different shape.
Lab work down in Denver confirmed Sean’s suspicions. For a paleontologist like Sean, learning that Carol was a likely torosaur was a special moment. His face lit up when he remembered hearing the news.
“You start jumping up and down a little bit,” he said.
Carol, whose ribs were found sticking out of the ground by Glenrock’s own Stuart McCrary, could have her torosaur status confirmed or denied this summer, when the Paleon crew uncovers more bones.
Uncovering Carol has already been a five year process – although not all of those years were accompanied by full-scale digs – and there could be another decade of work yet to come.
Part of the challenge is that dig season in Wyoming is short, from June through September.
When the weather starts to turn, the Paleon crew has to cover the find with dirt and patiently wait for summer.
“We’ll be camping out there if we need to,” Sean said. “There’s lots of work down the road.”
Without knowing exactly what’s in store this year, it’s difficult for the Paleon team to pinpoint exactly when all of Carol’s bones could get back to the museum where they can be studied and reinforced with resin.
“It may take us 10 years to get it up,” Don said.
The thought of excavating Carol’s head makes Paleon staff both excited and nervous. She could become the most complete torosaur skeleton ever found, but it could also be nervewracking to bring her to Glenrock.
Paleontologists will often take large balls of earth out of a quarry and carry them back to the lab. That helps them work on fragile bones, and also takes weather out of the equation.
If they find Carol’s massive, nine-foot-long head, her entire skull will have to be taken out in one fell swoop, dirt, bones and all, not exposed and broken off piece by piece. That means moving an entire block of earth, almost like a rootball for a massive tree.
While the landowners have been exceptionally gracious, and have allowed the Paleon to work on their ranch land for decades, Carol is quite remote.
Getting her skull to town will either require the building of a special road, then some delicate truck work, or a helicopter transfer.
Don looked a little queasy at the thought of a helicopter transfer, and told a story of a famous dig where a helicopter began lifting an important find, couldn’t handle the weight, and dropped the load. Years of work exploded into dust when the dirt and bones hit the ground.
Uncovering bones at quarries isn’t just about painstakingly brushing dirt away from fossils. Field paleontology is 90% logistics. How will the Paleon get water out to the site for the plaster which the team will wrap around the skull and dirt? Extracting Carol’s head could require innovation and sleepless nights.
Sean’s eager for the sage land to dry out, to get 68 million-year-old swamp dirt under his fingernails and see what’s waiting for him out at the quarry.
“We’re just chomping at the bit to get back out there.”