Thanks to the dramatic museum exhibits, many of us can imagine a triceratops waving its horns and a scattered neck to repel a hungry tyrannosaurus rex. But some scientists believe that the triceratops also used their deadly hats against each other. Like dueling moose waving their horns, triceratops may have intertwined their horns to court friends or defeat rivals.
While scientists have long speculated about such behavior, convincing evidence of these collisions has proved elusive. But in a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of Italian scientists described what they thought was a gaping scar from one of these ancient battles on the neck of a high-profile triceratops known as “Big John.”
Discovered by commercial fossil hunters while working on a rock in South Dakota in 2014 and named after the ranch owner who owns the land, Big John received some fanfare until an Italian fossil preparation company bought and restored the remains. of the dinosaur in 2020. As the largest triceratops ever discovered (the skull itself is more than five feet long), Big John was sold to an anonymous trader last October for $ 7.7 million – the highest price ever for fossils. who are not from Tyrannosaurus Rex.
In addition to its stunning size and price, the creature’s skull has a large crescent-shaped hole at the base of its neck. While many Triceratops skulls have similar holes, few have been thoroughly studied, according to Ruggiero D’Anastasio, a paleopathologist at the University of D’Annunzio in Chieti-Pescara in Italy and author of the study.
There has long been a debate about what causes these gaps in the steering wheel of the triceratops. Some believe that they are signs of intraspecific battles or close encounters with predators. Others believe it may be a sign of an infectious disease or potentially age-related bone destruction. In the case of Big John, the bone around the gap is compacted into rough, plaque-like deposits, a sign that the area was once inflamed.
But to determine whether the inflammation was caused by illness or traumatic injury, researchers had to dig deeper. They examined bone samples from around the gap with microscopic details, looking for telltale signs of healing and bone remodeling.
By examining the samples under an electron microscope, the team noticed that the bone closer to the hole was more porous and full of blood vessels than the bone farther away, indicating that the cavity was formed by newly formed bone. They also pointed to small pits that usually appear when bones are reshaped by specialized cells called osteoclasts.
All these signs point to a triceratops that is recovering. “The stages of bone healing are similar to those seen in mammals, including humans,” said Dr. D’Anastasio. “We are certainly facing a traumatic injury that did not cause the death of the triceratops.”
Researchers believe that the gap in the shape of a lock was pierced at the edge of Big John by the horns of another triceratops. The unique position of the wound led researchers to suggest that the steering wheel was punctured from behind.
Although Big John was stabbed, the team estimates that the dinosaur survived for another six months based on bone healing. When the working dinosaur died about 66 million years ago, he was buried in sediment in the Hel Creek Formation, a source of fossils deposited towards the end of the dinosaur’s reign.
The Big John specimen is on a growing list of huge dinosaur fossils that are being offered for huge sums of money to private buyers. These staggering sums make public museums and universities more expensive, creating barriers between exquisitely preserved specimens and paleontologists.
In Big John, for example, the bone samples analyzed in the new study are stored in the collection of the University Museum in Chieti, but the location of the larger skeleton remains unknown. That’s hampering paleontologists’ ability to accurately verify new discoveries, according to Denver Fowler, curator of the Badlands Dinosaur Museum in North Dakota. “No one can actually go and see this pathological area for themselves,” he said. “Repetition is the foundation of science.”
These concerns have prompted the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology to discourage researchers from studying private fossils.
Dr. Fowler believes that even if some of the money and attention spent on Big John was given to paleontologists, it would help them discover, prepare, and study triceratops fossils that are more important than science.
“I expect a lot of museums to have unprepared specimens of better quality and more importance than Big John,” he said, “but the lack of resources leaves those specimens in their field jackets.”