When the new fossil hall at the National Museum of Natural History opens next June, it will show off hundreds of the Smithsonian’s finest prehistoric specimens, including the newly acquired star of the Late Cretaceous show, “The Nation’s T. rex.”
But just a tiny sliver of the museum’s 40 million fossils will be on display.
“You’re covering 3-plus billion years of life history, and there’s only so much you can pack in there,” said Hans-Dieter Sues, chairman of the museum’s paleontology department.
Here’s the story of a mysterious dinosaur that didn’t make the cut.
Approximate size of a triceratops next to an adult human
First, a few details: It’s not a whole dinosaur, just a six-foot-long skull. The rest of its body parts were probably carried off by ancient scavengers or swept away by the elements during the 66 million to 68 million years between its death and its discovery in Niobrara County, Wyo., in 1891.
It ate plants, had two horns over its eyes and looked mostly like a triceratops, except for a smooth rise on its snout where the third horn would’ve been.
The complex nose has many chambers. (Scientists don’t know why.)
A typical triceratops had a horn where this raised bump is.
Grooves on the horns and frill show the paths of blood vessels.
Sandstone from the rock formation fills a large cavity in the upper jaw.
A spherical knob allowed the head to move freely on the neck.
A cast-iron bar was welded to the back — a huge no-no in modern museum practice.
Asymmetrical holes in the frill are unusual. A normal triceratops frill has no holes.
Its name is … complicated
It has three names — four if you count the museum’s catalog number, USNM 2412 — yet paleontologists are not entirely sure what to call it.
In 1905, it was named Diceratops hatcheri. “Diceratops” means two-horned face; “hatcheri” is a nod to John Bell Hatcher, the famed fossil hunter who discovered it. It went by that name for over a century.
In 2007, however, a Russian author noticed that the name Diceratops already had been given to an insect in 1868. Two animals can’t share the same name, so he renamed the dinosaur genus Nedoceratops, a rather mean-spirited label that translates as “insufficient horned face.” A year later, a Portuguese paleontologist who hadn’t heard about the renaming proposed tweaking the original just a bit, to Diceratus. Some references now list all three monikers so people don’t get confused.
All those names may be superfluous anyway, Sues said, because most paleontologists now believe the skull belonged not to a different species but to a common triceratops that, through illness or genetic mutation, had a nose that just didn’t look like the others.
“It is the Rudolph of the Triceratops!” joked Sues, who nevertheless doesn’t care for giving fossils cute nicknames and probably won’t be thrilled that, for simplicity’s sake, we’re calling this one Rudolph for the rest of this story.
In addition to an oddly shaped nose, Rudolph’s skull has a frill that is perforated by three asymmetrical holes. Sues thinks they may have been caused by the same pathology that stunted the animal’s horn because they appear too smooth to have been caused by damage.
“The problem with dinosaurs is you often have so few specimens,” Sues said, so you see few variations. “If you had them only in fossil form, you might have a problem seeing that the skull of a German shepherd and the skull of a French bulldog are the same species.”
Its origin story is interesting
It is not merely Rudolph’s lineage that is intriguing, Sues said, but also its discovery, or rather its discoverer.
Hatcher was a colorful fossil hunter who first worked for Othniel Charles Marsh, the first professor of paleontology at Yale. (Marsh’s increasingly malicious rivalry with Philadelphia paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope became known as the “Bone Wars.” This was a huge story line in its day, when paleontology was a relatively new science, and the most spectacular finds were coming out of what was literally the Wild West.)
Hatcher discovered many important dinosaur fossils, including torosaurus. He was also known for his poker-playing prowess, Sues said, and once had to rely on his six-shooters to help him escape a town in Argentina after a card game left some locals broke and angry.
According to Hatcher’s description in the 1907 reference work “The Ceratopsia,” he found Rudolph protruding from sandstone, nose-down and without a lower jaw, in the same general rock formation where he had found torosaurus and many triceratops.
Hatcher sent his fossil finds, including Rudolph, back east to Marsh’s growing collection at Yale. After Marsh’s death in 1899, the skull came to the Smithsonian among five train cars full of fossils that became the foundation of the museum’s dinosaur collection.
Its fate was better than most
We should not feel sorry for Rudolph the Flat-Nosed Triceratops, which grew to be a very large adult in a dino-eat-dino world, Sues said.
And although its skull will rest among the trove of fossils in the basement of the museum rather than in the slick new fossil hall upstairs, it may have been dealt a better hand than the normal-horned triceratops that will represent the species to the public. That one has been posed lying on the ground, about to have its frill ripped off by the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex.
That triceratops’ name is Hatcher — and it has a crazy backstory of its own.
Aaron Steckelberg contributed to this report.
About this story
To re-create the Nedoceratops skull in 3-D, The Post took 3,242 photos of the fossil at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and stitched them together using a process called photogrammetry. This algorithm analyzes the images, finds common points, and constructs a three-dimensional model.