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Appalachian geology major's work reveals evidence of Triceratops battles

Appalachian geology major's work reveals evidence of Triceratops battles
Posted February 6, 2009 at 11:54 am . By ASU News 
Filed under General, Geology, Research 

BOONE-Jessica Norman, an undergraduate geology major at Appalachian State
University, has been working on the ultimate jigsaw puzzle. Since last fall,
Norman has painstakingly assembled parts of a Triceratops skull.

A digital image of a portion of the reassembled skull has been used by
paleontologist Andrew Farke, a curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of
Paleontology in California, to illustrate his research about the source of
injuries found on similar specimens. Norman's digital image of her work is
also online in National Geographic.

Geology major Jessica Norman has pieced together parts of a Triceratops
skull that has evidence of scarring, which is probably the result of a fight
with another Triceratops. The bony growth, depicted in a close-up of the
skull section, was included in an online National Geographic article about
the plant-eating dinosaurs. (Photo Two by Jessica Norman and courtesy of the
Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology
The Triceratops skull and other skeletal fossils had been in storage at
Appalachian in a protective plaster casing since it was unearthed during a
North Dakota field trip in the 1970s. Parts of the specimen have been on
display in the Department of Geology's McKinney Geology Teaching Museum. The
rest awaited further restoration.

"After I was hired in 2005, I recruited some students to work on the
specimen. Jessica took ownership of the project and, with some help from
others, began reassembling the pieces of the skull," said Andy Heckert, an
assistant professor in the Department of Geology and director of the
teaching museum.

Norman, who is from Brevard, has been interested in dinosaurs since she was
a young girl. An introductory geology course and a class trip to New Mexico
to collect fossils last summer convinced her to pursue a geology major.

Norman devotes a portion of two days a week piecing together the skeleton
fragments. As she completed the frill at the rear of the Triceratops skull,
she found growths or bony scars.

Heckert and Norman thought the scarring might have resulted from horn
impacts during fighting. "As the top layer of the bone was injured during a
fight, it created a bump or protrusion as it healed," Norman explained.

They took the fossil specimen with them to a meeting of the Society of
Vertebrate Paleontology to see if others agreed with their speculation.
There, they met with Farke, who was completing a lengthy research project on
the subject with others.

Some paleontologists have theorized that the horns and frills were for
display, while some thought they provided protection from predators, Heckert

Farke thinks the horns were also used for fighting other Triceratops.
Scarring on the specimen at Appalachian and other specimens he studied seems
to support that theory.

The fossil at Appalachian is one of 58 specimens that were studied by Farke,
and one of 10 that exhibited the scarring.

"Triceratops is a fairly common dinosaur fossil," Heckert said. "But, there
aren't many dinosaurs where you have a sample of as many as 58 adult skulls.
For 10 out of 58 adults to have an injury that you can see on the bone is
pretty significant."

Norman will continue to piece together the remaining Triceratops skeleton
and write up scientific descriptions of each bone. She hopes to present a
poster presentation of her work at the annual undergraduate research
symposium on campus as well as a Southeastern Association of Vertebrate
Paleontology meeting in May.

Norman also hopes that a Triceratops leg bone is among the pieces still
encased in plaster. If so, she and Heckert will analyze a cross-section of
the bone to see if lines of arrested growth within the bone, which are
similar to tree rings, relate to the shape of the edge of the frill, which
scientists have shown changes with age. This could help determine the age of
the dinosaur when it died.

Heckert says it takes months in the lab to prepare fossils that are
collected in just a few days of work in the field. "I tell students that
there a lot of people who want to go to graduate school in vertebrate
paleontology," he said. "If you can do prep work, that's a real plus."