College Student Finds a 65-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Skull During Paleontology Dig in North Dakota

Harrison Duran with a partial Triceratops skull.
Harrison Duran with a partial Triceratops skull.
Fossil Excavators

Paleontology is often a game of luck, and an undergraduate student at the University of California, Merced recently hit the jackpot. As CBS News reports, Harrison Duran, a fifth-year biology student with an emphasis in ecology and evolutionary biology, was on a dig in the Badlands of North Dakota when he struck upon the partial skull of a 65-million-year-old Triceratops fossil.

Duran trekked out to the Badlands with "bone digger" and Mayville State University biology professor Michael Kjelland expecting to find plant fossils on their two-week dig. Among the fossilized wood and leaves, they discovered something else: the remains of a Triceratops, one of the most iconic dinosaurs of all time.

Duran, whose passion for dinosaurs predates his academic career, was ecstatic. “I can’t quite express my excitement in that moment when we uncovered the skull,” he told UC Merced. “I’ve been obsessed with dinosaurs since I was a kid, so it was a pretty big deal.”

The specimen was named Alice in honor of the owner of the land where it was found. After a week-long excavation, the partial skull was covered in foil and plaster and transported by truck to Kjelland's lab. Kjelland noted that such fossils are susceptible to theft (Triceratops skulls can be worth a quarter-million dollars), but he hopes to eventually make Alice viewable to the public. His ideal scenario would be touring the skull around various locations, but the fossil must be further analyzed and prepared for display before that can happen.

The Dakotas are famous for their dinosaur fossils. Triceratops are especially prevalent there—in South Dakota, the species is the official state fossil.

Michael Kjelland with Triceratops skull treated with foil and plaster.
Michael Kjelland with Triceratops skull treated with foil and plaster.
Fossil Excavators

[h/t CBS News]

Mapping Technology Reveals 'Lost Cities' on National Geographic

Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Lin uses his iPad to visualize scanning data of a crusaders' fortress at the lagoon in Acre, Israel.
Blakeway Productions/National Geographic

Imagine what Pompeii looked like before the lava hit, or Mayan pyramids before the jungle took over. In the past decade, scientists have been able to explore human settlements long since abandoned by using a new wave of accessible technology. Instead of needing an expensive plane and crew to fly aerial sensors, for example, explorers can mount them on cheaper drones and pilot them into previously unreachable areas. The resulting data can tell us more about the past, and the future, than ever before.

That’s the premise of Lost Cities with Albert Lin, a new TV series premiering on National Geographic on Sunday, October 20.

Lin, an engineer and National Geographic Explorer, uses cutting-edge tools to shed light on centuries-old cities in the most beautiful places on Earth. Ground-penetrating radar reveals buried structures without disturbing the landscape. A drone-mounted remote sensing method called LIDAR—short for "Light Detection and Ranging"—shoots lasers at objects to generate data, which Lin visualizes with 3D mapping software. The results suggest what the ruins probably looked like when they were new.

Albert Lin and crew in Peru
Thomas Hardy, Adan Choqque Arce, Joseph Steel, Duncan Lees, Albert Lin, and Alonso Arroyo launch the LIDAR drone at Wat'a in Peru.
National Geographic

“It’s like a window into a world that we’ve never had before,” Lin tells Mental Floss. “It’s shooting millions of laser pulses per second through a distance of air. By digitally removing the top layer of everything above the ground—trees, brush, cacti—you’re washing away the past. All of the sudden you’re left with these fingerprints—experiments in how we organized ourselves through time.”

For the six-episode series, Lin and the expert storytelling team were dispatched to the South Pacific, the Middle East, the Andes, the Arctic, and other destinations. Lin explains that while most of the sites are known to archaeologists, they’ve never been so precisely mapped in three-dimensional detail.

In the first episode, Lin travels to Nan Madol, an enigmatic complex of temples and other structures on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. With the help of local researchers and indigenous leaders, Lin and the team scan the ruins and digitally erase trees, water, and forest undergrowth to unveil the complex's former grandeur.

“Technology and innovation have always been that gateway to go beyond the threshold, and see what’s around the corner,” Lin says. “Seeing these worlds for the first time since they were left, it’s almost like reversing the burning of the library of Alexandria. We can take the synthesis of knowledge of all these watershed moments of our human journey, and imagine a better future.”

Lost Cities With Albert Lin premieres Sunday, October 20 at 10/9c and resumes on Monday, October 21 at 10/9c on National Geographic.

A ‘Lost’ Viking Graveyard Was Discovered in Norway

LMGPhotos/iStock via Getty Images
LMGPhotos/iStock via Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, Scandinavian Vikings didn't send their dead out to sea on flaming ships. When someone died, they buried the body in the ground just as people have been doing across cultures for centuries. A recent discovery sheds new light on the Vikings' version of the practice. As Atlas Obscura reports, an entire Viking graveyard has been unearthed by archaeologists in Norway.

A survey leading up to a highway expansion revealed the site in Vinjeøra, a town located next to an ancient Viking farm. The graveyard contains several boat burials. While there's no evidence of Vikings ever conducting burials at sea in Scandinavia, they did sometimes load their cadavers onto boats—the boats just happened stay on land and act as coffins rather than watery graves. This may have contributed to the modern Viking funeral myth.

Among the boats, the dig team also found the remains of 20 burial mounds, including one that was especially noteworthy. The mound—which had been leveled by centuries of agriculture—once covered a mortuary house where a body was laid to rest. Archaeologists say the size and elaborate nature of the grave indicate that someone important, such as a chieftain or war hero, was buried there.

The house itself is no longer around for researchers to study, but it did leave behind a rectangular footprint, and a few foundational stones as evidence of its existence. By studying the grave mounds and boats, the archaeologists hope to learn more about a group of people that disappeared without leaving behind any written records of their lives.

Viking grave sites don't just tell us who the Vikings revered and how they treated their dead—they can also tell us what they did for fun. Ancient burial boats have revealed that some Vikings were buried with board games.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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