A 23-year-old UC Merced student made the find of a lifetime when he helped uncover a 65-million-year-old dinosaur fossil.
Harrison Duran was working on a dig site last month in the Badlands of North Dakota when he and Michael Kjelland, an excavator and professor at Mayville State University, spotted what at first glance seemed like a piece of petrified wood.
But a closer inspection prompted the pair to dig deeper and ultimately led to the discovery of the partial skull of a Triceratops.
The Badlands are a paleontologist’s paradise, where many dinosaur and plant fossils have been discovered. Kjelland found another skull last year in the Hell Creek Formation, where this year’s dig was organized, and knew the area was likely to provide more fossils, perhaps from the Cretaceous Period.
The excavators named their fossil find “Alice,” after the private landowner where the skull was found.
The conditions for the excavation were ideal, Kjelland said, noting that it’s not uncommon to ask property owners to explore their land in those areas.
“There’s a window of opportunity when it’s not too cold and there’s no snow on the ground, and it not too hot,” he said.
Duran’s interest in paleontology began in childhood with trips to the La Brea Tar Pits from his hometown of Fullerton.
“Instead of going to Knott’s Berry Farm or Disneyland, I’d always beg my parents to take me to the Tar Pits.”
California is home to marine fossils and other relics dating back to the Ice Age. In 2016, an ancient elephant was discovered under a construction site not far from the Tar Pits. But for dinosaur fossils, scientists typically go farther inland, toward the Dakotas and Wyoming.
Duran said finding the dinosaur fossil — a longtime goal — was surreal.
“It’s almost like dinosaurs have a mythos about them. They’re seen as mythological beasts, so it’s amazing to actually discover one, to remember that they were living, breathing animals at one point.”
It took a week to carefully excavate Alice. The dinosaur’s skull was first stabilized with a specialized glue to solidify the fractured, mineralized bones. After, an accelerant was applied to bond the structures. The fossil then was coated in foil and plaster, wrapped in a memory foam mattress for protection and taken to an undisclosed location.
“There have been people in the past who have stolen dinosaur bones,” Kjelland said about the need for secrecy.
This summer, Duran has been interning with Fossil Excavators, a project with Kjelland — whom he met at a biotechnology conference — and Kjelland’s father. After his internship, Duran will return to UC Merced, where he is pursuing a future in paleontology or biotech.
As for Alice’s future, Kjelland said he hopes the fossilized skull will rotate among locations, rather than sit in a private collection.
“The goal is to use this find as an educational opportunity, not just reserve Alice in a private collection somewhere so only a handful of people can see her.”
Duran, whose access to that type of education sparked a lifelong passion, echoes the sentiment.
“I think that the purpose is to spark interest with the public, not just with dinosaurs but paleontological and scientific discovery,” the student said. “I think for any kids out there that are passionate about one of these topics, I encourage them to follow that passion.”