Construction Crew Unearths Rare Triceratops in Thornton, Colo.

Construction sites are a great resource for paleontologists, apparently. Throughout 2017, several fossils, including a mammoth skull, were found during the excavation of a new subway line in Los Angeles. This fall, another impressive discovery was found by construction crews working on a new facility for Thornton's police and fire departments; this time in Thornton, Colo.

In late August, Dan Wagner of Saunders Construction Inc. was inspecting new concrete when he came across something unusual. After some digging and the unmistakable 'clink, clink' as his shovel tapped dark brown bone, Wagner called for his supervisor.

Scientists at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science are grateful he alerted his supervisor instead of continuing on with work, which would have destroyed a historic find. After some investigation, the scientists realized Wagner had come across the horn of a rare triceratops.

Because of Wagner’s thoughtfulness, paleontologists were able to uncover a dozen bones—including about 80 percent of the skull, the horns, shoulder and lower back bones of the triceratops as well as the tooth of a scavenging T. rex—while construction crews continued their work elsewhere on the site.

By late September, the paleontologists had extracted all of the fossil pieces and transferred them back to the Denver Museum (in protective plaster casts) where the rest of the dirt and rock will be carefully removed before the fossils are assembled and prepared for display. The work can take months, but in that time, visitors can view some of the fossils in the window of the museum’s paleontology lab.

The fossil could be as much as 66 million years old and is the most-complete Cretaceous Period fossil ever found in Colorado, garnering the Thornton triceratops plenty of notoriety and local attention.

Adding to its fame, the Thornton triceratops is rare. According to a National Geographic fact sheet, most triceratops weighed upward of six tons and stood about 10 feet tall and 30 feet long. However, like other triceratops found in the Denver area, the Thornton triceratops is roughly rhino-sized—only half as big as triceratops found in the Dakotas and Montana.

In October, the fossil was lucky enough to receive a name from the children of Brantner Elementary School, located just across a field from where the dinosaur was discovered. The students chose the name "Tiny." 

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