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Triceratops on the move at Science Museum

June 15 , 2016

by Jon Collins

Jan Fisher of Bloomington is ready. She's decked out in a shirt and necklace featuring a triceratops. And she's holding a triceratops stuffed toy.

After two days of waiting, Fisher cheered as workers successfully slid the 4,000 pounds of bone, plaster and steel across the museum floor.

After 17 years in the same spot, the museum's triceratops will be leaving behind its mural showing an exploding volcano scene, and joining other dinosaur specimens in the museum's collection.

"I've known it since 1966," Fisher said. "My art school teacher took us kids on a field trip, and when I saw that triceratops skeleton, that was the very first dinosaur skeleton I'd seen in my life, it took me by surprise, it was very exciting that day."

Fisher went to the museum the day before too, watching as the detached 1,200 pound triceratops head was moved in a separate operation.

It's a somewhat undignified process for a skeleton with a grand name. The granddaughter of Richard Wagner called it Fafner in honor of the dragon character in the composer's Ring cycle.

Fafner is actually not one dinosaur, but two. The museum's specimen is a combination of two triceratops skeletons discovered by longtime museum paleontologist Bruce Erickson in the early 1960s in a region called Hell Creek Formation in Montana.

Fafner became the first major dinosaur specimen of the museum's now extensive collection, said paleontologist Kristi Curry Rogers, a professor at Macalester College.

"It was only the third mounted triceratops in world back then," Curry Rogers said. "This is a great discovery that Bruce made because it's just not that common to find."

Curry Rogers says our understanding of dinosaurs and how they lived has changed drastically since the museum unveiled the piece.

"Pretty much everything we thought we knew about dinosaurs when this specimen was collected has changed," Curry Rogers said. "Even the sort of reptilian stance that the mounted triceratops specimen has, its arms are splayed out to its sides, even that position is debatable, and our newer understanding of dinosaurs is more active, faster metabolizing kinds of animals."

Scientists are even debating whether the triceratops was a distinct species. Some have theorized that triceratops are just a dinosaur called a torosaurus before they become mature.

The skeletons that make up the Science Museum's specimen likely originated in the last era of dinosaurs. At that time, Hell Creek Formation was a warm area of broad rivers and fertile flood plains.

"It was a very diverse time for dinosaurs, there were all kinds of dinosaurs known from the Hell Creek Formation," said Raymond Rogers, a geologist from Macalester College who's currently researching in the area.

"T. rex was a contemporary, so this animal very likely have had to deal with T. rex on occasion, which would have been interesting."




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