“I can’t quite express my excitement in that moment when we uncovered the skull,” Duran said in a statement from the University of California at Merced. “I’ve been obsessed with dinosaurs since I was a kid, so it was a pretty big deal.”
While studying ecology and evolutionary biology, Duran decided to go on a two-week paleontology dig in the Badlands of North Dakota. He and Mayville State University professor Michael Kjelland, who had founded the nonprofit Fossil Excavators together, set off for the well-known dinosaur fossil site Hell Creek Formation.
Kjelland figured that he and Duran would discover only plant fossils, UC-Merced said in the statement, but Kjelland stayed open to the possibility of a bigger find.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said, according to the statement.
What happened this time was the discovery of the partial skull of a 65 million-year-old triceratops, whom they named after the owner of the land where they had dug.
They found the horn first, Duran told KCRA News, in June. Then an eye, the nose horn and the beak. Later, they found the cheekbone.
“That’s when we knew we had something special,” Duran told KCRA News. “So every day, the more you dig down, the better it got.”
Duran and Kjelland also found Cretaceous-period plant fossils, which they said shed light on the environment when Alice was alive.
In a week-long excavation, a local cattle rancher and his family helped Duran and Kjelland stabilize the skull with a special glue that solidified the fractured and mineralized bones. They applied an accelerant to bond the skull, the university said, coated the structure in foil and plaster, and lifted it onto a makeshift box.
The diggers wrapped Alice in a memory-foam mattress for protection and drove the skull to a secret location until they could take it to Kjelland’s lab. Dinosaur fossils can be valuable, Kjelland said in the statement, so he chooses not to disclose the temporary location.
Duran plans to go back to North Dakota soon to help Kjelland conduct more research and prepare Alice for display, the university said in the statement. Kjelland said he hopes the skull will move to various locations so as many people as possible can learn from it. He and Duran also intend to make a cast of the skull to display at UC-Merced so Duran can share his discovery with the campus community.
Maybe one day, Duran said, he’ll even get to bring the real thing to the campus.