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Meet “Sara” the Triceratops         

Triceratops horridus roamed the earth about 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period.  This particular Triceratops cast was created from original skull bones collected near Eastend, south-western Saskatchewan; by the Redpath Museum under license of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. Many visitors, curators, and museum staff have come to know this Triceratops by the nickname “Sara,” even though palaeontologists have no evidence to prove its true gender. Like other Triceratops, “Sara” was a quadruped (walked on four legs) and an herbivore (plant eater).  The tipped beak allowed Triceratops to pluck shorter plants off the ground, and strong jaw muscles were powerful enough in order to cut and eat small trees.  In addition to the frill, Triceratops had three large horns attached to the cranium, giving meaning to the word “Triceratops”: “three-horned face.” 

“Sara” was first introduced to the public on Friday, October 17, 2008, during McGill University’s Homecoming celebrations.  She became an instant media star producing t-shirts, postcards, and other fan related items.  Now she is a celebrated resident at the Redpath Museum based at McGill University. 

Image: By Torsten Bernhardt © Redpath Museum/Musée Redpath.

Sara’s Vital Statistics

Genus and Species: Triceratops horridus    Family: Ceratopsidae      Sub Order: Ceratopsia 

Place of Residence: Southern Saskatchewan

Age at death: probably a teenager (10 to 15 years old);   Triceratops life span: possibly 25 to 30 yearsTeenager length: approximately 6 meters

Adult length: up to 9 meters  

Teenager weight: approximately 3 to 5 tonnes; Adult weight: 6 to 12 tonnes.

Image:  Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Size of fossil skull: 2m long, 1.35m high, 1.05m wide   Weight of fossil skull: 275 kg    Age of fossil skull: ~ 65 million years old

Sara’s Teeth

Photos by Emily Bamforth. ©Redpath Museum/Musée Redpath

 


Excavation: How she was found

The original Triceratops fossilized skull bones were uncovered during two different excavations: the first in 2006 and the second in 2007.  Palaeontologists often prospect for fossils by hiking over exposed rock outcrops many kilometres per day.  They have to keep a watchful eye as they look for anything unusual and then do a light surface dig if something catches their attention. 

Once something of significance is found, notes and GPS coordinates are immediately taken so that palaeontologists may return to the site to look for missing pieces or other interesting specimens.  As the fossilized dinosaur bones are collected, a quarry map is drawn.  Each quadrant represents 1 square metre and they are usually labelled numerically.  This helps to organize the bones and to provide some sort of guide when later piecing the bones together.  After the overlying rock is removed, and the site is significantly documented, the fossilized bones with pick axes and shovels are carefully removed.  This process is challenging because the fossilized bones are fragile.  As a result, only smaller hand held tools are used, such as brushes and dentist's probes.

Images: By Emily Bamforth. ©Redpath Museum/Musée Redpath.

The Creative Team

Chantal Montreuil is the palaeontology technician at the Redpath Museum.  Chantal began her work on this Triceratops, “Sara,” in 2006.  Chantal’s assembly was incredibly painstaking as it took her a total of three years to complete the cranium, entirely by hand, without the use of computers.  A fibreglass replica is what stands before viewers today, as the original bones were returned to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for further study and curation. Initially, this Triceratops cranium was called 516-G, for scientific purposes.  So before its public unveiling, it was re-named by Chantal’s son, Keith, who initially introduced his mother to the Redpath Museum.  Keith’s favourite childhood movie was The Land Before Time where the triceratops character is called Cera, and so he gave 516-G a new name: Sara. This Triceratops epitomizes Chantal’s main interests and aims at Redpath Museum: using the history of the natural world to educate and capture the attentive imagination of the public.

Since the time that he was 5 years old, Dr. Hans Larsson was drawn to palaeontology as a career by his intense interest in dinosaurs.  After a university education in biology, some geology, a strong interest in interdisciplinary research, and experience in the outdoor fields prepared him for his current job.  Hans is now the Canada Research Chair in Macroevolution, and, here at Redpath Museum, he is the vertebrate palaeontologist and an associate professor.  He teaches courses such as Animal Diversity, Vertebrate Evolution, Developmental Evolution, and the Vertebrate Palaeontology field course. Hans spearheaded the dig for this Triceratops, “Sara”, along with a group of McGill students taking the 2006 Vertebrate Paleontology Field course.  He recalls that the frill was the first part of “Sara” that was discovered, and it took about 5 days of hard work to remove her skull carefully from the ground.  Although her body was never found, Hans and his team also uncovered parts of T.rex, a partial juvenile duckbilled dinosaur, a partial Thescelosaurus (small bipedal herbivore), and parts of crocodiles, turtles, lizards, salamanders, fishes and plants at the same site. His long-term goal for the Redpath Museum and McGill University is to introduce dinosaurs and their contemporaries into the museum in a much larger way so as to foster a stronger public interest in the museum.  One of his dreams would be to expand the museum’s public gallery to showcase Canada’s modern and extinct biological diversity and geology. His long-term research goals are to integrate research on the evolution of biodiversity with research on the evolution of the genetic, developmental, and anatomical changes that occurred during evolutionary transitions of the prehistoric past - such as the transitions from fishes to amphibians and from dinosaurs to birds.

Emily Bamforth completed her PhD at McGill University in 2013.  Her experience in excavating “Sara” the Triceratops has played a major contributing factor to her studies here at Redpath Museum.  In fact, her thesis focuses on determining climatic drivers of vertebrate paleobiodiversity in the late Cretaceous (66Ma) of central Canada.  Her study sites are situated in southeastern Saskatechewan, located in the badlands of Grasslands National Park and the Frenchman River Valley – an area that includes the site in which “Sara” the Triceratops was found.  She believes that the relationships between paleobiodiversity and paleoclimate in the same locality yields important insights into the drivers of terrestrial biodiversity leading up the second largest terrestrial mass extinction in earth’s history, thus unlocking some of the mystery behind “Sara”’s death and the disappearance of all large dinosaurs.

Images: Chantal Montreuil and Hans Larsson at the Redpath Museum by claudio Calligaris. ©Redpath Museum/Musée Redpath. Emily Bamforth at the Redpath Museum by Owen Egan. ©McGill.

Casts and Moulds – How this Triceratops was made

The Triceratops skull that stands before you is not real. There are no fossilized fragments in this skull.  In fact, this Triceratops skull is a fibreglass replica that was cast from the real fossils.  There are many reasons why the real fossilized dinosaur bones are not displayed to the public.  Large fossils are too heavy to be displayed in this manner once fully assembled.  By having the real bones on display, it also makes it harder for palaeontologists to examine the dinosaur bones scientifically. In addition, fossilized dinosaur bones are very fragile and are kept in specific climate controlled conditions.

If fossilized dinosaur bones are left alone and exposed to harsh elements they will be subjected to degradation, as seen by comparing the same bone in the two images below – one from 2010 and one from 2012.

The fossilized bones are preserved for museum display by making moulds and casts.  Layers of rubber, silicone, and in some cases latex, are used to create a soft shell mould around the original fossilized bone.  Then, in order to create the cast, a gel coat is applied within the soft shell mould as the first step (sometimes the gel is pigmented so that the cast will pick up all the fine details of the mould).  The second step is to mix together fibreglass and resin and then pour the mixture into the gel coated mould.  Polyurethane (plastic) or dental plaster can also be poured into the mould to create a cast.  When the mixture hardens, the cast can be removed from the mould.  The third step is to paint the cast so that it resembles the likeness of real fossilized dinosaur bone.  Finally, these fibreglass casts are assembled into one coherent display that is presented before you.

Images: By Emily Bamforth ©Redpath Museum/Musée Redpath.

Historic Representations of Triceratops

Note: These images are pulled from a series of open source archives and do not specifically depict the Triceratops located at the Redpath Museum.  Instead, the following illustrations play to the imagination and demonstrate how early researchers, authors and illustrators depicted the genus.

Skeletal restoration of Triceratops prorsus, based on the holotype skull. By O.C. Marsh, 1896. Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Image: “Triceratops” by F. John from the book: Tiere der Urwelt (Creatures of the Primitive World), Germany (published 1902-1906). Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Two images by Charles R. Knight: Left, oil painting from 1901 in Smithsonian Institute, NMNH Paleobiology, United States; right, illustration from 1904 book: Animals of the Past. Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Plate XI and cover from  the 1897 book: Extinct Monsters: A Popular account of some of the larger forms of ancient animal life. By Rev. H.N. Hutchinson,with illustrations by J. Smit and others. Fifth Edition. London, Chapman & Hall. Re-used under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License with eBook on-line at www.gutenberg.org

A Triceratopsian Diet

During the Late Cretaceous period, when Triceratops such as “Sara” roamed the Earth, their diet consisted of mainly angiosperm or flowering plants. Plant leaves, seeds, and twigs are also preserved in the sedimentary rock along with fossilized dinosaur bones.  Plants provide excellent records of the life of the past because they are very sensitive to their immediate environment, to their areas of distribution, and show patterns in population.  As a result we can learn many things about the time period, the climatic conditions, and the ecosystem as a whole, simply from fossilized plant material. In the Cretaceous period (about 124 million years ago), non-angiosperm species became less prominent, less important, and some even became extinct.  Simultaneously, angiosperms became more and more diverse, and soon 250 0000 species of flowering plants dominated the plant world.

In general, non-angiosperms are non-flowering plants such as conifers and cycads.  Angiosperms (Greek angio – ‘vessel,’ sperma – ‘seed’) are all flowering plants that also have distinct seeds that enlarge into a fruit once fertilized.  The flowers help angiosperms have a greater degree of ‘evolvability’ and adaptability because they attract insects and vertebrates as pollinators. This creates a co-evolving system with the animals around them that generate an increasing diversity. 

Triceratops may have played the role as a pollinator to angiosperm plants.  But even though Triceratops ate fruits, seeds, leaves, twigs, and roots they did not eat any grass.  Grasses were not yet present during the Cretaceous period, as this type of plant had not evolved until later during the Cenozoic Era. 

Some plants that “Sara” would have munched on include:

1) Populus – Poplar leaves

2) Pinus – Pines from a pine tree

3) Corylus – A hazelnut shrub from the filbert genus

4) Taxodium – Cypress tree

5) Plantanus – Sycamore or Plane tree

Image: Plantanus acerifolia Leaf (Plane Tree or Sycamore). Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

6) Viburnum – Japanese Snowball Shrub.

 Image: Viburnum plicatum mariesii. Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

 The End Cretaceous Mass Extinction

66 Million years ago, about 50% of all life on earth suddenly disappeared.  This mass extinction was probably caused by a meteorite that hit the Earth off the coast of Mexico and created a chain of events that led to the demise of non-bird dinosaurs. This particular meteorite was large (about the size of the island of Montreal) and is estimated to have been travelling at speeds of more than 100 km/second.  As the meteorite raced through the Earth’s atmosphere and then punctured the crust it generated enormous amounts of radiation, heat, and fusion.  As a result, upon striking the planet, the meteorite caused massive fires to erupt.  The force of the meteorite’s impact with Earth was so great that it created large earthquakes and mega tsunamis.  These powerful quakes created shock waves throughout the Earth, causing many dormant volcanoes around the world to become active once again.  Mass volcanic activity further contributed to the amount of pollution and toxic gases in the air. 

Millions of tones of debris were ejected into the atmosphere and dimmed the sun.  As a result photosynthesis ceased to operate in many plants.  So, there was not enough food for large herbivorous dinosaurs, such as Triceratops, to survive.  This caused a food shortage for omnivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex.  However, not all plant and animal life died during this period of destruction.  A few smaller mammals were able to survive and later evolved into the many species that we have today.

The K-Pg Boundary is the layer of rock preserved where the meteorite impact occured. It lies between the Cretaceous and the Paleogene (post Cretaceous) layers of rock strata. The End Cretaceous impact theory is supported with physical geological evidence such as the massive Chicxulub crater off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and features of the K-Pg boundary layer. For example, there are high levels of shocked quartz at the K-Pg layer suggesting a heavy-hitting impact force; there are high levels of iridium in this layer pointing to an extra-terrestrial source, and the unusual levels of chemicals, pollution, and dead plant and animal debris within the layer indicate destructive forces caused enormous changes in the environment. 

 

Images: “Dino Killer” by Don Davis for NASA;  “Nature Remodels the Coastline” by Don Davis for NASA and “Massive Terrestrial Strike” by Don Davis for NASA.

 

These online exhibits were made possible with funding from the PromoScience programme of NSERC.


The Canadian Biodiversity Web Site

An online exhibit about the ecozones of Canada and the species that live in them, the patterns and theory of biological diversity, and the conservation challenges that Canada faces. This site is designed to complement the Quebec Biodiversity Website, below.

This project was made possible with funding from the Museums Assistance Programme of Heritage Canada and PromoScience programme of NSERC .


The Quebec Biodiversity Website

The Quebec Biodiversity Website is an in-depth look at the theory of biological diversity, conservation issues, and information about the species and natural history of Quebec. It complements the Canadian Biodiversity Web Site, above.


 Amphibians

A look at Canada's amphibians: which species are found here, information on their life cycles and conservation issues.


 Insects

A detailed look at Canada's insects: their life cycles, anatomy, an insect slideshow and a searchable database of over 200 species.


Virtual Museum of Quebec Minerals

Entire industries have been created around minerals and whole sectors of the economy depend entirely on the wealth produced by the activities both directly and indirectly related to minerals. In the Montreal area, two locations have earned a world reputation, either because of the abundance of minerals or because of the rare minerals found there. These are the Poudrette and the Demix quarries in Mont St. Hilaire and the Francon quarry in St. Michel. The minerals found at these locations are featured on this site.