This week, a new horned animal is coming to the CU Boulder campus. No, not a buffalo, but a full-sized skeletal reconstruction of a Triceratops dinosaur.
The skeleton is a testament to the sheer size of Triceratops, an herbivore that roamed Colorado during the Cretaceous Period around 68 to 66 million years ago.
“This is an exciting time to expand the museum’s impacts, sharing research about our region’s ancient past and a sense of wonder about evolutionary innovation,” said the CU Museum of Natural History’s new director, Nancy J. Stevens. “This exhibition cultivates curiosity about the world around us, engaging the next generation to explore science, and encouraging reflection on environmental change through time.”
Students, staff and members of the public can view the exhibit for free on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (SEEC is closed on weekends and holidays). Members of the public can also learn more about Colorado’s dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals by visiting the Paleontology Hall in the museum’s Henderson Building on Main Campus.
The Triceratops exhibit represents the CU Museum of Natural History’s first complete dinosaur skeleton on display, ushering in a new chapter for the research institute. The exhibit dovetails with the museum’s mission to foster exploration and appreciation of the natural world and promote engaging educational experiences for campus and community alike.
Karen Chin, professor in the Department of Geological sciences and curator of paleontology at the museum, can’t wait for visitors to get a look at the massive Triceratops.
“Everybody knows about Triceratops,” Chin said. “But it's not common in museums to see the whole animal. To see the scale of this dinosaur, and such a weird dinosaur, is very exciting.”
A Coloradan dinosaur
CU Museum curator of fossil vertebrates and professor of geological sciences Jaelyn Eberle added that, like the American bison, Triceratops was uniquely at home in the West. These dinosaurs grazed on plants from Colorado north into western Canada.
A Colorado schoolteacher unearthed the first documented Triceratops fossils, little more than a pair of horns, from near Denver in 1887. Paleontologist O.C. Marsh originally attributed the horns to an extinct giant relative of bison. Soon thereafter, more complete fossils were discovered, and he named a new dinosaur Triceratops, which means “three-horned face.”
“Museums want to exhibit complete skeletons, but the chances of finding a perfect, pristine skeleton of these kinds of animals are exceedingly small,” said Eberle.
The skeletal reconstruction in the exhibit measures 22 feet long and 9 feet tall and is a high-resolution cast comprised of plaster, fiberglass and foam. It was cast from the bones of not one but several partial Triceratops specimens found in the late 1800s. Scientists at the Smithsonian Museum assembled these fossils into a single composite skeleton in the 1900s, and a cast of the full composite skeleton is featured in this exhibit.
“We thank colleagues and collaborators at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the dedicated team of experts that worked to assemble the exhibition, and our friends at SEEC for graciously welcoming the exhibit,” said Stevens.
Indeed, bringing the skeletal reconstruction to Boulder was no easy feat. The Triceratops rode in pieces by truck in 2022 from Washington, D.C., to Boulder, where a crew painstakingly put it back together off site. To fit it through the doors of SEEC, a team rolled its body, skull and limbs inside separately.
Eberle said the heavy lifting will be worth it to introduce a new generation of Coloradans to the state’s ancient past—when Triceratops strode the landscape alongside other dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex, and an inland sea covered parts of the American West.
“Colorado has such a fascinating history, and it has a spectacular prehistory, too,” Eberle said. “I hope the Triceratops exhibit encourages folks to find out more about Colorado’s ancient past.”