When a dinosaur nicknamed “Hatcher” was cobbled together a century ago, he was the first triceratops the world had seen in 66 million years. And he looked the worse for it.
“That skeleton was a little bit of a Frankenstein,” admitted paleontologist Matthew Carrano, dinosaur curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Now Hatcher faces his greatest indignity yet: He's going to be fed to a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Hatcher was posed clumsily in his original mount, with legs splayed at uncomfortable angles. Staff at what was then called the U.S. National Museum drilled holes through the ancient animal's bones to install metal bars that held the mount together, something curators shudder at today.
Still, looming at the center of the museum's “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” Hatcher was an impressive sight — in 1905, The Washington Post described the new specimen as “the most fantastic and grotesque of all that race of giant lizards known as dinosaurs.”
But he didn't really seem like something that was once alive.
“When Hatcher came to the Smithsonian, dinosaurs were becoming quite famous,” Carrano said. “But at the same time, we didn't understand them as animals. We didn't know that much about their biology or even how they were all put together.”
It took nearly a century of research for the museum to recognize its mistakes and finally set Hatcher to rights. In 1998, the fossils that constituted the dinosaur were taken off display and replaced with a new, properly proportioned mount made from casts of the bones. Some were scaled up or shrunk down to account for their mismatched sizes. At the unveiling, the triceratops was officially christened “Hatcher,” in honor of John Bell Hatcher, the paleontologist who found the bulk of his bones.
Now the triceratops guards the entrance to the Last American Dinosaurs exhibit, his massive head tilted forward, his powerful legs planted firmly beneath him.
But the new-and-improved Hatcher isn't long for this world. When the museum opens its new fossil hall in 2019, a fearsome T. rex will be the star of the exhibit — and Hatcher will be lying at the predator's feet, about to become its next meal.
It's a brutal but fitting next chapter in the dinosaur's long career at the museum, according to Carrano. When Hatcher arrived at NMNH 112 years ago, he was a bundle of bones with no backstory. In his death scene, he will embody everything scientists have learned about triceratops since then.
The fossils that make up Hatcher were found amid the stark bluffs and dun-colored sandstone of the Wyoming Badlands. Over the course of several sweaty weeks in the summer of 1889, paleontologists uncovered ribs the height of a grown man, leg bones as thick as tree trunks, and massive skulls that had a bird's beaked nose, a powerful jaw and three nasty-looking horns. The animals' faces were ringed by frills as large and ornate as an Elizabethan lord's ruff.
“Imagine being the first person to dig up a triceratops,” Carrano said. “It would have seemed just hard to imagine this was a real animal.”
Researchers had found smaller pieces of similar bones before, but the presence of horns led them to assume that the fragments came from an extinct species of bison.
But John Bell Hatcher, the young paleontologist in charge of the expedition, immediately recognized the significance of his discovery. He packaged the skulls and shipped them to his mentor back east. This was no bison, the human Hatcher insisted. This was a new species of dinosaur. Scientists would call it Triceratops horridus — “horrible three-horn face.”
The mount, which was installed to great fanfare in 1905, was the first triceratops skeleton ever displayed. And he was one of a kind; no other museum would get a triceratops for 20 years. In time, Hatcher won the hearts of turn-of-the-century museum-goers and museum staff — even now, Carrano affectionately calls the dinosaur “he,” though paleontologists don't actually know the sexes of the animals that constitute him.
But from a scientific perspective, Hatcher was misleading at best. And many researchers weren't all that interested in fixing him.
“One hundred years ago, dinosaurs were really trophies for museums — they weren’t things that serious scientists studied,” explained Carrano. “They were there to bring people to the museum and then you went and worked on something that mattered.”
In 1905, relatively few dinosaur fossils had been found, and not much was known about the creatures beyond the fact that they'd gone extinct. The ancient creatures were viewed as an aberration in the history of life, an evolutionary experiment that had failed.
Paleontologists interpreted triceratops's massive size, heavy bony frills and extravagant horns as evidence that the animals were fatally overspecialized, a theory known as “racial senility.” And Hatcher, with his bulky frame and awkward stance, didn't do much to help matters. Generations of artists would base their illustrations on the mount, resulting in scores of paintings depicting triceratops as squat, stooped and silly-looking.
No one understood then that dinosaurs ruled the Earth for more than 150 million years — more than twice as long as the amount of time that has elapsed since their extinction. Nor did anyone realize that dinosaurs still dwell among us in the form of birds, which continue to be the most diverse group of land vertebrates. And it would be more than 70 years before scientists figured out that dinosaurs weren't brought down by their own DNA but by an asteroid impact that obliterated 75 percent of all life on Earth.
Meanwhile, paleontologists were unearthing thousands of new and better-preserved fossils. When Hatcher was built, no one had ever seen a complete triceratops skeleton. By the end of the century, dozens had been found. Indeed, paleontologist John Scannella once observed, “It is hard to walk out into the Hell Creek Formation [a rich fossil site in Montana] and not stumble upon a triceratops weathering out of a hillside.”
From that abundance of specimens came a wealth of new information about triceratops. Their teeth, stacked three to five rows deep on each side of their jaw, suggest that they consumed large amounts of leafy, fibrous plant food. Their elaborate frills and long horns were probably used in combat. Their diversity in size and shape, which confused Hatcher and his contemporaries into believing there were more than a dozen distinct triceratops species, were actually a result of rapid growth and physiological changes that happened as the dinosaurs grew up.
It became clear that the dinosaurs were actually wildly successful, from an evolutionary point of view. They took on body shapes never seen before or since. The largest dinosaurs evolved to be 10 times bigger than the next biggest land animals in the history of life.
“They actually are biologically really interesting animals and they seem to have managed to do things that other animals did not manage to do,” Carrano said.
In the late 1990s, museum staff took a hard look at the Hatcher mount and decided that he was overdue for a makeover. The triceratops's renovated digs and sleek new physique were meant to reflect the new understanding that dinosaurs were dynamic creatures with an important scientific story to tell. In the Last American Dinos exhibit, Hatcher is posed with one leg forward, as if walking, and he is situated among placards explaining how baby triceratops grew to adults. His original bones have been taken off display to ensure they remain preserved and useful for research; Carrano said that scientists refer to the fossils for studies at least a dozen times a year.
But some dinosaur debates have still not been resolved. Scientists aren't any more certain about the triceratops's stance now than they were in John Bell Hatcher's time. Some argue that the creatures' legs were positioned under them, like those of a cow, while others believe they should extend out to the side, like the legs of a crocodile. Hatcher is much less bowlegged now than he'd been in 1905 — reflecting something of a happy medium.
Likewise, scientists don't know how much truth there is to the storied antagonism between triceratops and T. rex. The creatures lived in the same place at the same time, and they probably would have run into each other on the prehistoric American landscape. Examination of a triceratops pelvis found etched with tooth marks suggests that T. rex probably fed on the remains of triceratops after it was dead. But there's no evidence — yet — that the two ever fought face to face.
That's why, for its new exhibit, the museum will intentionally leave the circumstances of Hatcher's demise ambiguous.
“Did the T. rex kill the triceratops, was the triceratops already dead?” Carrano asked. “These are things we do not actually know the answers to as scientists, so we want to provoke that in visitors.”
And Hatcher need not be dinosaur chow forever. Carrano noted that scientists still have a lot to learn about triceratops; perhaps, in the future, a new discovery will warrant a revamped mount.
“Even today,” he said, “I think if you look at Hatcher, there's still some room for improvement and some possibilities that things will change.”
Tales From the Vault: Science museums are home to vast research collections, most of which the public never gets to see — until now. Once a month, Speaking of Science will go behind the scenes at our favorite museums to introduce readers to the fascinating objects and people we find there. Read past installments here.