“Big John”, a high-profile triceratops, horns locked with its own type, study suggests

Thanks to the spectacular museum exhibits, many of us can imagine a Triceratops with its horns and a ruffle around its neck to avoid a hungry rex tyrannosaurus. But some scientists believe that the Triceratops also wore their deadly hats against each other. Like dueling moose brandishing their antlers, Triceratops may have intertwined their horns to lure their teammates or beat rivals.

Although scientists have long speculated about this behavior, conclusive evidence for such confrontations has proved difficult. But in a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of Italian scientists describes what they believe to be an open scar from one of those ancient battles behind the wheel of a high-profile Triceratops known as “Big John “.

Discovered by commercial fossil hunters working on a cliff in South Dakota in 2014 and christened by the landowner, Big John received little fanfare until an Italian fossil preparation company bought and restored the land. dinosaur remains in 2020. As the largest triceratops. Never discovered specimen (the skull alone is more than five feet long), Big John was sold to an anonymous bidder last October for $ 7.7 million, the highest price ever for a non-tyrannosaurus fossil rex.

In addition to its amazing size and price, the creature’s skull has a large crescent-shaped hole at the base of the neckline. Although many Triceratops skulls have similar holes, few have been studied in depth, according to Ruggero D’Anastasio, a paleopathologist at the D’Annunzio University of 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 a Triceratops. Some believe they are scars from intraspecies confrontations or close encounters with predators. Others think they may be signs of an infectious disease or a potentially age-related bone rupture. In the case of Big John, the bone around the gap is covered with rough, plaque-like deposits, a sign that the area was inflamed.

But to determine if the inflammation was caused by an illness or a traumatic injury, the researchers had to dig deeper. They examined bone tissue samples around the gap in microscopic detail, looking for telltale signs of healing and bone remodeling.

Examining the samples with an electron microscope, the team observed that the bone closest to the opening was more porous and full of blood vessels than the farthest bone, indicating that the gap was framed by a bone. new format. They also identified small pits that usually occur when bones are being remodeled by specialized cells, called osteoclasts.

All of these signs point to a recovering Triceratops. “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, which did not result in the death of Triceratops.”

Investigators believe the lock-shaped breach was punctured in Big John’s steering wheel by the horn of another Triceratops. The unique position of the wound led the researchers to hypothesize that the steering wheel was punctured by the back.

Although Big John was stabbed, the team estimates that the dinosaur survived six more months after the bone healed. When the dinosaur died about 66 million years ago, it was buried in sediment in the Hell Creek Formation, a fossil fire deposited towards the end of the dinosaur’s reign.

The Big John specimen is among a growing list of huge dinosaur fossils that receive exorbitant amounts of money from private buyers. These staggering sums are valued by museums and public universities, creating barriers between exquisitely preserved specimens and paleontologists.

With Big John, for example, the bone tissue samples analyzed in the new study are stored in the collection of the University Museum of Chieti, but the whereabouts of the largest skeleton are unknown. This makes it difficult for paleontologists to accurately verify new findings, according to Denver Fowler, curator of the Badlands Dinosaur Museum in North Dakota. “No one can go and see this pathological area for themselves,” he said. “Repeatability is the foundation of science.”

These concerns have led the Vertebrate Paleontology Society to discourage researchers from studying privately owned fossils.

Dr. Fowler believes that if even a fraction of the money and attention paid to Big John went to paleontologists, it would help them to discover, prepare, and study the most scientifically important Triceratops fossils.

“I expect many museums to have unprepared specimens of better quality and more significance than Big John,” he said, “but the scarcity of resources leaves these specimens in their field jackets.”

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