It's National Fossil Day, so here's an update on Pops, Weld County's official dinosaur
Wednesday is National Fossil Day. The National Park Service has recognized this annual fossil celebration since 2010. This year, parts of Northern Colorado are joining the party for the first time. They are inspired by Pops the triceratops, who has been the official fossil of Weld County since the mid-1980s.
Pops was found in 1982, on land belonging to Sonny Mapelli, who donated the dinosaur skull to Weld County. It was the source of a lot of county pride at the time. Triceratops t-shirts were printed for the occasion. There was even a public contest to name it — “Pops” ultimately won — and a declaration making it the official county fossil.
According to Weld County communications director Jennifer Finch, the donation came with just one condition: “That fossil would remain in Weld County, in a county building, so that all the public could come in and see it,” she said.
And that’s how Pops ended up behind glass in the fluorescent-lit lobby of the Weld County administrative building.
“In a not-so-dignified way, it was how we told people where the restrooms were. 'Cause we'd tell them, go out to the lobby, and they're right by the dinosaur,” Finch explained.
To clean a dinosaur
Last fall, a group of paleontologists moved Pops to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to be cleaned up and restored by curator of dinosaurs Dr. Joe Sertich and his team. Sertich said that work is now complete.
When the fossil was moved last October, a trove of additional bones was discovered underneath the display case. They had been thrown into some cardboard boxes and hidden away for decades. The team of paleontologists worked on those pieces too. And according to Sertich, there were some real finds in there.
“In those boxes were probably about 20 ribs. Many of them in pieces, but several complete ribs of parts of the backbone,” he said. “I'd say we probably got another 35 new complete-ish bones. And the real prize in that collection was the lower jaw. The skull of Pops was known for the last 40 years, but hiding in that box were chunks that are glued back together to complete (the) lower jaw.”
Sertich said the additional bones are an exciting find, because of how rare it is to have a complete skull from a dinosaur of that time period, about 68 million years ago.
Partly because of the fossil’s age, Sertich believes the fossil is not a triceratops after all, but something older and rarer.
“There were some features of the skull, and they're really subtle so they might not be noticeable to to a lot of people, but to a dinosaur lover like me, they're pretty obvious,” he said. “And once we've cleared off some of the old muck and old rock, we were able to confirm that there are features of the skull that don't look like a triceratops and that falls in line with what we know about its age. So it's about 1.5 to 2 million years older than many of our common triceratops fossils.”
Sertich believes the skull might belong to an ancestor of the triceratops dinosaur called an eotriceratops. It might even belong to a different species that is new to science. In the coming months, he will study the bones before publishing his findings.
One last stop before home
Before heading back to Weld County, the skull of Pops will make one last stop at Gaston Design, in Fruita, Colorado, where one of the world’s premier dinosaur restorers and modelers has his workshop.
Rob Gaston has made a career out of reconstructing extinct animal skeletons, including dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals and reptiles. While not formally trained as a paleontologist, Gaston has serious dinosaur credentials. He even has a species named after him — the Gastonia, which is an armored dinosaur he discovered in Utah as a young man in 1989.
“It’s kind of like ankylosaur with lots of spines and plates and things of that nature,” Gaston said. “It's a really cool animal.”
Gaston says that when he’s done with his work on Pops, there will be three versions of the skull. First, he will cast a perfect replica of all the bones, so that scientists at the museum can study them the way they came out of the ground.
The original bones have to be returned to Weld County for display. So he said those will have some restoration work done to get it ready for the public eye. But Gaston said he plans to keep that to a minimum.
“With the original… you don't really want to go trying to modify, cut, break or do anything like that to an original specimen. Those are very important to the science,” he said. “And at some point, whether it's in our lifetime or the next generation, somebody's going to want to study those things.”
Gaston said the work will be limited to filling in gaps where the pieces of bone are missing.
The third version of Pops will be something called a restoration cast. This is the most labor-intensive. It involves sculpting and manipulating a cast of the original in order to remove ancient distortions in the bone.
“Some fossils are buried the better part of a mile underground, they've got tons and tons of sediment above them,” Gaston explained. “You think of them as solid rock, but there's enough heat and pressure that they're like Play-Doh. They get pliable and they start getting squished.”
Pops will return to Weld County once Gaston has completed the restoration work, which will be in early 2022. Communications director Jennifer Finch says they are preparing a new, more impressive new display for the fossil.
“Pops has guarded our restrooms for years,” she said. “So the board has agreed that the new (display) case will be in a more prominent spot in our lobby, right in front of the hearing room. So as soon as you walk into the building, you will see Pops.”
The county has also commissioned artwork for the display from the famed paleoartist Andrey Atuchin.
A new lease on the afterlife
But Pops’ story won’t end there. Since the start of the restoration project, Finch has introduced Pops to the internet, where he now has a significant presence and dedicated fanbase.
Finch says that with the help of the internet, interest in Pops has extended far beyond Weld County.
“On our social media, we have people following the Pops project from literally around the world — Japan and South Korea and over in Europe and South America and Canada,” she said.
This story is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Oct. 13. You can find the full episode here.