An extremely rare set of dinosaur fossils were airlifted out of the New Mexico wilderness last week in a delicate attempt to get them to a museum, where they can be further studied, The Guardian is reporting.
Since 2011, researches have been interested in the fossilized skeleton of an infant Pentaceratops, a plant-eating dinosaur that roamed the earth 70 million years ago. The skeleton was found in New Mexico’s Bisti Wilderness, a desolate stretch of badlands where no vehicles are allowed. Since researches couldn’t bring in trucks to pack up the dino fossils, they had to think outside the box.
— Talking Points Memo (@TPM) October 30, 2015
It took years of brainstorming, planning, and cutting through bureaucratic red tape, but last week, with the help of a National Guard helicopter, the dino fossils were airlifted out of the wilderness and flown a few miles away, to a waiting cargo truck. Researchers encased the fossils in plastic to protect them.
— NM Natural History (@NMMNHS) October 30, 2015
Also found nearby was the fossilized skull of an adult Pentaceratops; it, too, was airlifted out of the wilderness. The mission wasn’t a total success; a number of bones, also encased in plastic, had to be left behind because of muddy conditions. Those will be moved later. Spencer Lucas, of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, described his emotions to ABC News.
“Baby dinos are so rare to find as fossils, and even more incredible is that this is the first baby fossil of a Pentaceratops ever discovered. When I saw the helicopter carrying it, I was just thinking how this plant-eating dino that used to walk in a New Mexico jungle 70 million years ago is now in the air flying!”
Amanda Cantrell, the only professional female paleontologist in New Mexico, found the Pentaceratops skeleton in 2011.
“Basically, we spent a month out in the field, just hiking the outcrop, and one day, I went really far, and I stumbled upon some bones. You become familiar with what the bones look like, and I saw them from pretty far away and went up to investigate, and sure enough, I saw the skull first.”
The baby Pentaceratops found in New Mexico is one of a very small number of specimens of the rare and elusive creature. Fewer than ten Pentaceratops skulls have been found — all adults — and the New Mexico find is the only baby. The baby find is significant because dinosaur researches have observed that the shape of a dinosaur’s skull can change dramatically from infancy to adulthood, as Lucas explains.
“There’s a lot of interesting questions. We know what the adult skull of a Pentaceratops looks like, but we’ve never seen a juvenile skull. So it will be interesting to see what the differences are in shape, the size of the horns and other kinds of features.”
Paleontologists believe the Pentaceratops, which traveled in herds, used its five horns and shield-like formations on its skull for either defense, or for attracting mates.
— Adrienne Mayor (@amayor) October 30, 2015
Researches believe that the dinosaur died and its remains were washed away by a stream, based on the fact that some of its bones have fallen apart.
Curators at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science hope to have the fossilized dinosaur on public display in the next few years. In the meantime, on Thursday, museum visitors will be able to watch through glass screens as researchers open up the dino fossils’ plaster casings before cataloging the pieces.
[Image via Shutterstock/Michael Rosskothen]