Underneath the sagebrush and droves of cattle near Newcastle, Wyo., paleontologists have potentially unearthed one of the most complete skeletons of a triceratops ever found.
The scientists from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research and Naturalis Biodiversity Center began work on the dig in early May.
Despite the three-horned triceratops being one of the most well-known dinosaurs, a complete skeleton is a rare treasure, Pete Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute, said Thursday.
The dig also unearthed two younger triceratops, which Larson said is also a rare occurrence. He said the three skeletons were most likely a family unit.
"The dig indicates that there was some sort of parental pair and nowhere in the literature has that ever been noted before, and that's unprecedented," he said.
The triceratops is an herbivore that lived in massive herds throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It lived during the late Cretaceous period, which ended approximately 65 million years ago. In the past few years only a few partially complete triceratops skeletons have been found in the world.
"This triceratops could easily be one of the most complete in the world," he said. "It only has to be 50 percent complete to be one of the top four most complete in the world."
Larson said the find should advance the study of triceratops greatly.
"We have the opportunity to really rewrite the book on triceratops," he said.
The area where the dinosaurs were found was most likely a subtropical flatland during the Cretaceous period, a perfect environment for the triceratops, Larson said. Over time, erosion has exposed the bones to surface where they could be discovered.
"This site, like many of the ones we dig, was found by the rancher who owned the land," Larson said. "He alerted us to the find this fall."
The institute, which is a paleontological and earth science supply house in Hill City, began the dig May 9 alongside Netherlands-based company Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Larson said the site was most likely a tyrannosaurus rex feeding ground, which the institute is very familiar with. The institute has participated in eight digs for T. rex skeletons.
Naturalis — an education, research, collection and exhibit company — partnered with the Black Hills Institute in hopes of finding a nearly complete T. rex for display in its Dinosaur Gallery in the Netherlands, set to open in 2017. The dig only produced part of a left foot and leg of a T. rex, Anne Schulp, a paleontologist with Naturalis, said in a statement.
"In paleontology, you never know exactly what you are going to find under the ground," Schulp said. "We are now in possession of a fabulous T. rex foot and several pieces of leg. These are normally the parts that would first disappear, become lost or gnawed away."
The center will continue to extract T. rex bones for its exhibit from another excavation site, where it has already secured part of the skull, a lower jaw, several teeth, vertebrae and ribs.
After killing a triceratops, a T. rex would normally eat the skin and bones, carrying it off, devouring it and leaving only the skull behind, Larson said. Most of the skeleton remains at the site, despite it being a T. rex feeding grounds, he said.
"Apparently, the triceratops was quite tasty and one of the favorite meals of the T. rex," he said.
The excavation of the older triceratops skeleton alongside the two younger skeletons could tell scientists a lot about the development and behavior of triceratops, Larson said.
"We should get a glimpse into these animals, especially since there was parental guidance," Larson said. "Really there are very few triceratops skeletons that have been discovered, only three really good skeletons and many skeleton heads."
The recent rain has hampered the excavation teams' efforts to secure the bones from the dig site. Larson said that because it is such a unique find, the team is keeping a tight lid on the digs whereabouts for security purposes. He said if the weather cooperates, the dig should be finished in about a month.