When palaeontologists unearthed the fossilised remains of a juvenile Pentaceratops in New Mexico's Bisti Wilderness Area four years ago they were faced with a tricky dilemma: how would they get their rare dinosaur discovery out of the protected badlands and into a museum?

Traditional methods for excavating and relocating the fossils were off the table as the ancient remains were found in an area that prohibits the use of vehicles or mechanised equipment. The solution? A lot of digging and a military Black Hawk helicopter.

 

After four long years of hard work and paper-pushing, researchers from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science were able to enlist the help of the National Guard, who supplied a helicopter to airlift the fossils out of the area.

The Pentaceratops skull was carefully prepped and encased in plaster before the chopper swooped in and plucked it from the wilderness, airlifting it to a cargo truck that was waiting along the route. An adult Pentaceratops skull that was found about 10 miles away was also relocated.

The mission was mostly a success; however, muddy conditions made it impossible for the team to remove a third and final plaster jacket containing the rest of the baby’s fossilised remains. This is scheduled to happen at a later stage.

An aerial view is not something the ground-dwelling Pentaceratops would have ever experienced. First discovered in 1921, this rhinoceros-like herbivore lived about 70 million years ago and much like the more iconic Triceratops, the species sported an impressive frill and long curved horns, which palaeontologists believe may have been used for defence or to attract mates.

Fewer than ten adult Pentaceratops skulls have been unearthed in the past century, and according to museum curator Spencer Lucas, the new discovery marks the first juvenile skeleton and skull to ever be recovered.

“There’s a lot of interesting questions,” says Lucas. “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.”


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Header image: Nobu Tamura