Unlike the ‘dime a dozen’ T-Rex, there are only a handful of near-complete triceratops skeletons in the world – and one is coming to Australia
Melbourne Museum will become permanent home to the world’s most complete triceratops skeleton, with the “immense and unprecedented” $3m acquisition of a 67m-year-old dinosaur fossil.
After two years of negotiation and due diligence, the Victorian government and Museums Victoria have brokered a deal to bring the triceratops horridus – which was discovered on private land in the United States in 2014 – to Melbourne next year where it will go on display for the first time.
“It’s immense, and frankly, unprecedented in terms of this sort of item of such global iconic stature and quality being in an Australian museum. There’s no precedent really,” Dr Erich Fitzgerald, senior curator of palaeontology at Melbourne Museum, told Guardian Australia on Wednesday.
The skeleton is at least 87% complete, measures up to seven metres long from tip to tail, stands at more than 2m tall, and literally weighs a tonne. Its 261kg skull is also 99% intact. It’s so finely preserved that even skin impressions and tendons are visible.
“Triceratops skeletons that are almost completely intact are rarely found – in fact, are vanishingly rare for triceratops, despite its popularity, and iconic status,” Fitzgerald said. “T-rex now is almost a dime a dozen – a garden-variety dinosaur. It’s basic, a vanilla dinosaur … But there’s really just a handful, maybe four or five substantially complete triceratops skeletons on the entire planet.”
The fossil was discovered on private property in eastern Montana by independent commercial fossil prospector Craig Pfister. Museums Victoria became aware of the fossil in 2018 and began investigations into its provenance and authenticity. A spokesperson from the organisation said they could not share details about the landowner in order to preserve the integrity of the excavation site.
Fossil ownership and trade laws are complicated and vary between countries, but in the US, fossils found on private property belong to the landowner and can be sold commercially. Independent prospectors need permission from landowners to dig on private land, but will often negotiate deals with landowners that allow them to share in the profits of sale for any significant find.
Trade in fossils can also be extremely lucrative: a near-complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton sold for US$31.8m in October.
Museums Victoria is a member of the International Council of Museums that requires the organisation to adhere to a code of ethics around the purchase of fossils.
“Acquisitions by Museums Victoria have to go through an extremely rigorous due process, due diligence around provenance, and that includes a fully detailed investigation of the origins of any item that is under consideration,” said Fitzgerald. “That was quite an involved process, which is why it actually took some time just to get this point of announcing that we have acquired this fossil.”
This particular fossil was discovered in an area known as Hell Creek, a place Fitzgerald said “for a long time has been known as one of the globally richest sources of dinosaur fossils, and indeed, fossils of plants and other animals that lived in the environment with dinosaurs”.
Hell Creek was also where the famous “Duelling Dinosaurs” – a tyrannosaurus rex and triceratops locked in permanent battle – were discovered in 2006.
Museums Victoria’s triceratops dates from the end of the cretaceous period, “almost a blink of an eye before the cataclysmic events 66 million years ago that followed the asteroid striking the Earth and leading to a global mass extinction,” said Fitzgerald. “The final moments before we transitioned into the era of life that we live in, the Cenozoic era.”
Fitzgerald, whose own research in palaeontology focuses on the fossils of ancient marine animals, said a fascination with dinosaurs is universal in his field. “Anyone who is fortunate enough to become a palaeontologist is amazed and in awe of dinosaurs,” he said.
The triceratops is at the final stage of preparation – the process of cleaning the bones out of the rock in a laboratory in Canada – before its move to Australia. Fitzgerald said he hoped it would bring visitors to the museum for “the thrill and wonder of seeing something like this, for the first time”.
“It’s the right fossil for a public museum that has a palaeontology program to acquire,” he said. “It’s fantastic for public display as an attraction, fantastic for public education, and a scientifically priceless fossil that will inspire and be used in research for generations.”
The museum expects the skeleton will allow the scientific community to properly map, for the first time, the full “atlas of anatomy for triceratops” and allow them to definitively answer basic “vital stats” about the dinosaur, such as how big and heavy they really got.
“Triceratops is almost like the last of the big guns – the really big name, household name dinosaurs – for which we don’t have answers to those questions yet,” said Fitzgerald.
Despite being about to welcome such a scientifically significant specimen to his home city, Fitzgerald said that the triceratops wasn’t his favourite dinosaur.
“Dinosaurs are still alive. Dinosaurs are all around us. We call them birds,” he said. “My favourite dinosaurs are penguins, because they are the best examples of dinosaurs that went to sea … Penguins evolved, we think from a flying ancestor. And that flying ancestor was a bird.”