Retired nuclear physicist Bill Shipp discovered a fossil on his ranch near Winifred, Montana roughly a decade ago. Following his excavation, he named her “Judith” after the Judith River rock formation where he made that find. Now, following a study of the remains, “Judith” has been identified as a new species related to the triceratops that had quite the difficult life.
Amateur’s fossil discovery lends itself to museums, science
It appears that “Judith” had quite the difficult life with her front leg bones showing that she was suffering from advanced arthritis and a hole in her skull shows what was most likely the cause of her death that likely came from an attack by a member of her own species. (The arthritis likely made running away less than a viable option.)
While that may sound grim, it’s believed that a shin bone found on the sight shows she likely lived through illness and the attack or others which was is testament to the resilience of her species.
The bones and recreation of the species is set to go on display this week at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
“She’s taking her place in the body of scientific knowledge that’s out there,” Shipp said. “And she’s contributing to that knowledge.”
The research team that investigated “Judith” or Spiclypeus shipporum (meaning “spiked shield” and a nod to Shipp) was named by Jordan Mallon who led the research team that studied Judith and published their findings in the journal PLOS One yesterday.
It’s believed that Judith had a huge beaked nose for feeding on vegetation and two side facing horns for protection. Judith also had a sizable spiked frill on the back of her neck.
Mallon and her team date Judith to a life about 76 million years ago when the area where Judith was found would have been on the shores of an inland sea that effectively cut North America in two pieces. The fern prairies were ruled over by a number of large animals including the ankylosarus and the fearsome tyrannosaurs.
“It was a very diverse ecosystem at the time, so we have all these questions about how did they live together and avoid competing and who was eating what,” Mallon said. “Judith fits into that bigger picture … and helps us understand it.”
From nuclear physicist to fossil hunter
Shipp’s find came as a result of this understanding when he decided to become a fossil hunter following his retirement.
That said, Shipp certainly got lucky when he discovered a huge leg bone on only his first day as an amateur fossil hunter.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How did you find it?’ ” Shipp said. “And I always say ‘I accidentally found it on purpose.’ I was actually looking for it with no expectations of finding anything. But there it was.”
While ship had spoken to a local paleontologist before his first “fossil find” he knew he would need more help going forward and found two local paleontologists to help along with a number of his friends.
After six years, Shipp and friends had excavated nearly the whole skeleton and named her “Judith.”
While these amateurs were digging, the professionals began to start hearing rumors of the find.
“I’d kind of heard of it through the grapevine and seen pictures of it,” said Mallon who specializes in horned dinosaurs. “There was some consensus that it was a new kind of horned dinosaur, but no one had been able to get a good look at it.”
Shipp meets Mallon
Last year, Shipp was in Ottawa and decided to visit the horned dinosaur collection at a museum. It’s here where Shipp and Mallon met and the latter agreed to investigate Shipp’s find and Shipp promised to donate his find to the museum.
Mallon was a late arrival to the work and joined four paleontologists who were already hard at work on their own studies.
“As it emerged she was a new genus and a new species, that was a very exciting thing for me,” Shipp said. “You get to do that once in a lifetime, if you’re really lucky. I mean, really, really lucky.”
Through the use of X-rays, the team discovered that one of Judith’s legs was effectively useless owing to her arthritis.
“It probably caused a lot of pain for Judith,” Mallon said. “You can just see her, hobbling along on three legs like a tripod.”
The team believe that Judith likely had a very solitary life as she would have likely been abandoned by her herd owing to her presumed slow pace. That said, Shipp admires her strength and the fact that she may have lived through the leg injury for years.
“It may have weakened her, but it didn’t kill her,” Shipp said. “She was tough, no doubt about that.”
Shipp realizes that he will likely not make a find like “Judith” again but continues to look around his property for his next find.
“You can only cover a small part of [the land] and it’s steep and difficult … but that doesn’t mean we don’t look,” he said. “One day we may get lucky again.”