Chipping Away at Triceratops Hype

Triceratops is an A+ dinosaur. Ol’ three-horned face was named during the days of the great 19th century Bone Wars and has had a place in the public’s imagination ever since – a Hell Creek Formation herbivore so impressive that only Tyrannosaurus, often cast as the mortal enemy of Triceratops, is more famous. And given our long and abiding love of Triceratops, it’s not surprising that a recently-discovered bonebed of the ponderous and pointy Cretaceous herbivore has received a good deal of overhyped press.

Found on a Wyoming ranch, and excavated by the commercial outfit the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research with the Netherlands-based Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the smattering of 67 million year old bones comprised the remains of three Triceratops. Even though the bones are barely out of the ground, excavators from the BHI are already playing up details of the find.

The largest of the Triceratops at the site, says BHI president Peter Larson, is represented by most of the skeleton and appears to be as intact as a handful of other previously-uncovered specimens. More than that, Larson has highlighted the fact that at least three Triceratops were buried together. He expects that this was a family group, which he (wrongly) claims is the first evidence of Triceratops social behavior ever found. Most sensational of all, Larson speculates that the site was a feeding ground for the dreaded Tyrannosaurus. The evidence? In Larson’s preliminary interpretation, two limb bones from the largest Triceratops seem to have been cleft by a formidable bite.

There is no research to talk about. No paper, or even abstract, exists to detail the components of the site and how three Triceratops were entombed so close together. The field crew has yet to even complete their excavation of the deposit. Yet the find is being presented as a spectacular site that is already spilling secrets about dinosaur lives. The petrified aggregation may very well yield new details about our favorite three-horned dinosaur, but that’s a matter of future investigation. Discovering and excavating bones is only an initial step in paleontology – no one can simply gaze at a field site and immediately reconstruct what happened in the way Larson is claiming to do. And we already know that this Triceratops bonebed is not quite so singular as tabloid reports suggest.

Triceratops isn’t especially hard to find. During a brief field stint near Ekalaka, Montana in the summer of 2011, I regularly encountered the broken remnants of Triceratops skulls as I followed the Burpee Museum and Carthage College paleontology crews over the profuse Hell Creek Formation exposures. And beyond my qualitative experience, a census of Hell Creek dinosaurs published that same year by Jack Horner and colleagues found that Triceratops is actually the most commonly-found genus in the famous formation. The beaked, horned dinosaur is so abundant, in fact, that paleontologists past have head-hunted Triceratops – taking skulls but leaving the rest, thus creating the relative dearth of skeletons.

Bonebeds are a bit rarer than isolated skulls and skeletal scraps. But, while the discovery of a new multi-Triceratops site is welcome news, such a find is hardly unprecedented. In 2009, paleontologist Josh Matthews and coauthors described a tangled mass of bone found in eastern Montana containing at least three young Triceratops. Of course, the fact that these animals were preserved together doesn’t automatically mean that they lived together – the conglomeration of bones tells us more about death than life – but the site raised the possibility that Triceratops were social during the days of their youth, at least. The BHI site is certainly not the first to contain multiple Triceratops or possibly contain clues about the social lives of these dinosaurs.

As for Tyrannosaurus, there’s almost nothing to be said. Tooth marks on Cretaceous bones – particularly skulls – indicate that the carnivorous tyrant often peeled flesh off dead Triceratops, but the postmortem details of the recently-uncovered dinosaurs awaits rigorous analysis. The suggestion that the deposit was a blood-spattered tyrannosaur buffet is unsubstantiated bombast.

I’m not averse to hearing about, or even reporting on, field discoveries, but the real science of paleontology starts after the careful recovery of prehistoric remains. Setting the scene as a graveyard where a rogue tyrannosaur ripped a family of Triceratops to shreds is sensationalism based on only the barest threads of superficial evidence. And since none of the news reports mention a museum where the bones are supposed to be reposited for proper storage and research, we may have to wait a long time to find out the real story behind the skeletons. (I most certainly hope that the dinosaurs are not going up for sale, as the BHI is in a business that sells dinosaurs, too.)

Fieldwork is one of the most romantic parts of paleontology. The frustrated, but hopeful, search for vestiges of monstrous, gloriously-bizarre life. But too often we see paleontologists as field workers who scrabble bones from the dirt and can magically divine everything about that animal from a single disinterred bone. In truth, many field identifications are wrong, and drawing out the secrets of dinosaur biology takes a great deal of expertise and a concentrated effort to ask the right questions of prehistoric remains. There’s much to learn about Triceratops – aspects of the magnificent dinosaur’s biology that the new site could inform – but let’s be patient enough to let the gradual unfolding of fossil interrogation and discovery take place.

[Top image by Allie Caulfield, from Wikipedia.]

14 thoughts on “Chipping Away at Triceratops Hype

  1. I’m disappointed that Mr. Larson–who I’ve met in real life (nice guy!)–feels the need to sensationalize the story. I read about this and immediately had a plethora of questions, but no news story answered any of them. Since so many specimens are never actually published, I have my doubts that we’ll hear anything substantial about this Triceratops trio.

  2. Good for you for you for telling it like it is! Sorta reminds one of the outrageous guts and gore media hype associated with the King Kong discovery in the original 1930s movie? The value of every skull and every bone and even every monster and every punk kid Egyptian king increases with a good back story.

  3. Well – there are people who are interested in paleontology and there are people who are interested only in dinosaurs. The latter doesn’t bother with time-consuming analysis; the bones at face-value are enough to sell admission to the local museum. Whatever misinformation results doesn’t matter in the long run – all that matters is that, at the end of the day, visitors who have little to no scientific background can exclaim “We saw a family of dinosaurs!”

  4. It is important to remember that the individuals who are interviewed for news stories rarely have any control over what is printed; quotes are shortened, only what the author finds interesting or sensational is used. It shouldn’t be said that Larson is sensationalizing the story, but rather the news media is sensationalizing the story. When the interviewee makes speculations the interviewer will often not present this information as speculation; this is flawed reporting as it doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the critical thinking that is happening as the site is unearthed.

    And of course there’s nothing published yet, the excavation has only been going on for a month, with rains forcing the crew off the site for days at a time. And while Triceratops may be common as a genus in the Hell Creek, good skeletons are a rarity; only four specimens on display (that I am aware of) are not composites. Some of those composites even contain hadrosaur bones!

    As for the commercial aspect it is imperative to understand that fossils on private land belong to the land owner unless the fossil rights belong to a third party. Black Hills Institute of Geological Research is often publicly demonized for selling fossils while the understanding that the brunt of their clients are museums and other research institutions and Black Hills Institute frequently offers more broad access to collections and specimens than nearly all public facilities. It is rare that news media accurately portrays individuals or their statements; reporters decide what they write.

  5. This is an unfortunate and common occurrence in paleontology and archaeology…all hype and headlines while the science goes by the wayside. Shame on Naturalis for being part of this but maybe they’ll be the impetus for real science later down the road. Are the bones not going to the Netherlands? I thought I read that somewhere….Thanks, this was a good piece.

  6. Timothy:

    I don’t think you can pass off the hype on reporters so easily. Yes, they played a role, but, based upon the quotes in the stories I linked to, Peter is also pushing a particular interpretation. He’s building hype about the site before anything is known, and the reporters picked some of the juiciest bits. And I do realize that the excavation is ongoing, preventing publication – that’s why I was aggravated at the claims of completeness, social behavior, and predation already being bandied about.

    Do you happen to know whether or not these Triceratops are going to be reposited into a public museum or similar institution? Or are they going to be sold? While the BHI does sell fossils to museums, this practice does not help paleontology – the $9 million pricetag on the “dueling dinosaurs”, for example, is absolutely ridiculous and any museum would be foolish to pay that amount. A paleontology department could fund their field and lab operations for decades, if not centuries, for that amount in their efforts to find and prep their own dinosaurs. (And that’s to say nothing of how high-price sales make black market thieves see dollar signs in dinosaur bones.)

    I truly hope the Triceratops bones wind up in a public museum and will be researched. But I cannot agree that the sale of such fossils is beneficial to paleontology.

  7. the one or two new stories i read said the fossils were going to the Naturalis. They have been collecting dinosaurs for an exhibit they hope to open in the future (i think 2016 or 17, i think).

  8. Brian:

    Hi again! You’re absolutely correct that not all the hype is put out by the reporters, it’s just those key quotes like “I think”, “as far as I’m aware”, and “it’s possible” get left out of the interviews which can lead to misinterpretation of statements. Larson does have a tendency to get really excited over these finds and makes grand speculations hoping for a best case scenario. This is not always beneficial for science but it does stir public interest, and it is that public interest which keeps funding coming in for public institutions. All the same, I agree that too many claims without substance can too easily lead to public misunderstanding.

    The fossils will not be reposited; they are private property of the land owner and will be dealt with at the land owner’s discretion; BHI acts as a middle-man in this sense: they excavate, prepare, and mount the fossils, working in tandem with whichever institution will eventually house specimens. This is the same case with the “Dueling Dinosaurs”, they are the property of the land owner and BHI acts in accordance of the land owner’s wishes. I do have to disagree with the statement that the sale of private fossils does not help paleontology. If a landowner has [scientifically] valuable fossils on their land public facilities often have an expectation that they should be given to the public; this can frequently cause problems for the land owner in providing access to the site, restricting cattle movement, etc. The land owner should be reimbursed for the inconvenience, not to mention the hole left in the ground. Many land owners don’t want prospectors on their land because of the headaches it can cause or because of a past experience that went badly. There are a lot of politics behind it all but the end result is that BHI has access to private fossils that many public institutions have been denied access to; BHI is then able to provide that access to specimens which might never see the light of day. There are scientific hurdles that this creates, the dollar signs in poacher’s eyes, but not all commercial paleontologists operate in the same manner. BHI will not handle a fossil that does not have proper documentation. Pricing fossils has a lot more to do with the amount of work that goes into them than some people may realize, and an articulated fossil takes more work than a dis-articulated fossil. When fossils are excavated, prepared, and mounted by public institutions it is taxpayer money that is funding the project for something the public may never see. When BHI sells a completed fossil exhibit to a museum it is [generally] for public display so you know that the taxpayer money spent on that fossil was all spent towards an publicly available exhibit, not something to be stored away in catacombs that may never see the light of day, or that someone needs a Ph.D. to get a glimpse of. These reasons are why I think commercial paleontology can be a good thing. (Emphasis on “CAN”, commercial paleontology can also be abominable for the reasons you mentioned.)

  9. Timothy,

    You mis-represent museums when you imply that it requires a PhD to visit collections that are not on display. This is simply not true – museums give access to undergraduate and graduate students all the time, as well as to independent researchers, artists, etc, that have a good reason to visit as well. In fact, many museums also give ‘behind-the-scenes’ tours to the public quite regularly.

  10. I might need to clarify; it should be known that the views I express are my own and do not represent the views of any entity or other individual. I cannot speak with any certainty about the future of the fore-mentioned triceratops specimens.

    I wasn’t making a blanket statement about ability to gain access to specimens in collections but I understand how it can be read that way. This is only in some cases that access to collections is restricted and the handling of fossils is frequently (not always) restricted to Ph.D.s, which I believe is a poor practice.

  11. Timothy,

    I’m no paleontologist, although I am interested in the subject enough to surf sites like this one. I spent 40 years as a working newspaper writer, columnist and editor on large dailies.

    So pardon my umbrage, but I do hope your work is closer to the mark than your blanket judgment of the media:

    “It is rare that news media accurately portrays individuals or their statements,” you wrote. “Reporters decide what they write.”

    That is nonsense, and worse from someone like you, it is ignorant nonsense.

    I will guarantee you that the percentages of incompetent, sensationalizing news folk is no different from that of incompetent, sensationalizing people who dig up dinosaur bones… or doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs.

    Most in my biz bust a gut to get things right, and take great pride in it. I hope your comments are not indicative of your critical thinking in other areas.

  12. oh give him a break; man’s been through enough. is it not the nature of all geologists and paleontologists to make speculations in the field? let him be bold, make his “faulty” claims, and state his hypotheses–it’s the ONLY way we progress. for the scientific community, “i think” is not a necessary disclaimer; we are persuaded by the science, not the language. and as for the public, they wouldn’t substantiate the doubt if it wasn’t what they wanted anyway–cause that’s not glorious!

  13. Are the individuals in that bonebed representatives of Triceratops horridus or Triceratops prorsus? I hope those animals would end up in a public institution for the general public to see and study (and I wish that once the analyses of the discovery is completed, the research would be published as an open-access journal article [relasedd in open-access publications]).

  14. Sorry for the late reply [I’m reading backward through this very interesting blog]. Naturalis is a famous Dutch museum within an hour traveldistance from my frontdoor, the best museum we have for this kind of stuff. Sure you are allowed to study their collection! Kind and helpfull staff too. That’s to say, that was the situation a few years ago. Since then Dutch government has cut museumfinance drastically and I don’t know if / to which extend, this affected Naturalis.

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