Bill Shipp isn’t a dinosaur doctor. He’s not even a paleontologist. But when he looked at the skeleton of the creature he discovered on his Montana ranch 10 years ago, an ancient horned dinosaur he called Judith, it was obvious she had been through a lot.
One of her front leg bones showed signs of advanced arthritis that would have made walking almost unbearable. A horn-sized hole in her skull looked like it was drilled by a member of her own species during an attack. And the remains were covered in the marks of huge, sharp teeth — likely left by the predator that brought about her untimely end.
But the tale engraved in these ancient bones isn’t only a tragedy. Though they bear evidence of Judith’s difficult life, the fossils also testify to her incredible resilience: growth rings in her shin bone show that she lived through her illness and the attack.
And, 76 million years after she was killed, it looks like Judith is having the last word: This week, she goes on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature, the first representative of a newly named species.
“She’s taking her place in the body of scientific knowledge that’s out there,” Shipp said. “And she’s contributing to that knowledge.”
A study of Judith’s remains, reported Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, revealed that she represents a previously unknown relative of the triceratops. When she was alive, she was likely a sight to behold: Weighing in somewhere between a rhinoceros and an elephant, her massive beaked nose could pick apart vegetation with scalpel-like precision, while her sideways-pointing brow horns would have warned other creatures not to come too close. A massive, spiked frill around the back of her neck would put the most sartorial Elizabethan courtiers to shame.
Judith’s research team, led by Canadian Museum of Nature paleontologist Jordan Mallon, christened her species Spiclypeus shipporum (pronounced “spi-CLIP-ee-us ship-POR-um”); the genus name, which means “spiked shield,” references Judith’s tremendous neck frill, while “shipporum” honors her discoverer.
According to Mallon, Judith would have lived 76 million years ago, during a time when northern Montana sat on the shores of a narrow inland sea that divided North America in two. The newly formed Rocky Mountains towered over a landscaped covered by conifers and fern prairies, and huge creatures — ankylosaurs with their armored bodies and fearsome clubbed tails, duck-billed hadrosaurs, carnivorous tyrannosaurs with teeth like chef’s knives — dominated the scene.
Judith’s species was just one of several horned dinosaurs alive at the time, and she would have distinguished prospective mates — and potential enemies — by the very particular orientation of the horns and spikes on their massive frills.
“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.”
When the snows melted, the streams that ran down from the Rockies’ icy peaks would have surged over the banks, flooding Judith’s habitat first with water, then with a thick layer of sediment. These deposits kept ancient skeletons perfectly preserved — like a layer of geological packing peanuts — through millennia of global change.
The bones stayed buried when an asteroid plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico 10 million years later, starting the mysterious chain of events that led to the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs. They survived the shifting of continents, the expansion of glaciers, the rise and fall of sea levels, and the arrival of humans.
Shipp was aware of this when he and his wife bought a ranch in northern Montana about a decade ago, and after a 45-year career in nuclear physics — the tail end of it as head of the nuclear facility at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls — he had a scientist’s unquenchable curiosity, not to mention a general distaste for simply sitting still. Thinking that fossil hunting might be a fun activity for a weekend afternoon, he recruited a local amateur paleontologist to show him how it was done.
Just a couple of hours into his first afternoon of searching, Shipp spotted a strange, long, white object just barely buried in a hillside.
It was a leg bone. A massive one.
“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.”
Shipp recruited two local paleontologists and every friend he could find to help with an exploratory dig. “We didn’t have a clue what we were into,” one friend would later tell the Billings Gazette. “It was fun. It’s pretty exciting.”
Some six years later, Shipp and his team were able to piece the excavated remains together into an impressive and fantastic looking creature. Shipp called her Judith, for the Judith River rock formation where the fossil was uncovered. (Though he and the paleontologists who examined the fossil refer to it as “her,” it’s not clear yet what Judith’s sex was — generally speaking, scientists have a hard time determining dinosaur sex.)
But Shipp still didn’t know exactly what kind of creature Judith was. Meanwhile, word was traveling in the paleontology community that a hobbyist in Montana had made an astonishing find.
“I’d kind of heard of it through the grapevine and seen pictures of it,” said Mallon, a horned dinosaur specialist. “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.”
About a year ago, Shipp was visiting Ottawa for a physics conference (he is, as he likes to say, only “semi-retired”) and decided to stop by the museum to visit its horned dinosaur collection, which is considered among the best in the world. A receptionist called Mallon and asked him if he wanted to talk with the visitor. Before he knew it, Mallon had agreed to help investigate the specimen, and Shipp had promised to donate Judith to the museum for display.
Teaming up with four other paleontologists who were already working on the project, Mallon helped identify Judith’s species and figure out how she fit into the hierarchy of dinosaurs at the time.
“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.”
But analysis of Judith’s battered remains added a sour note to the excitement of discovery. When radiologists looked at her disfigured left humerus, which bore a big, bony mass near the shoulder joint, they determined that her arthritis would have rendered the limb basically unusable. A huge hole near her elbow shows where the bone opened up to drain infection out.
“It probably caused a lot of pain for Judith,” Mallon said. “You can just see her, hobbling along on three legs like a tripod.”
Judith probably would have been abandoned by her herd, he added, because she was unable to keep up with them. And though he can only speculate about the source of the huge hole in her bone frill, the fact that it’s the exact size of a Spiclypeus horn could indicate that she was attacked by one of her own.
Yet despite her suffering, she still managed to eke out an existence. Her bones’ growth rings show that she lived to be 10 years old — a mature adult in ceratopsian terms. And the injuries on her leg and frill both show signs of healing. She would have survived for months, or even years, before a predator finally took her down.
“It may have weakened her, but it didn’t kill her,” Shipp said. “She was tough, no doubt about that.”
Though Shipp is quick to assert that he’s “not a romantic” — “I’m a physicist,” he said stoutly — he can’t help but appreciate the story of Judith’s improbable survival. The right combination of perseverance and luck helped her make it through 10 hard years of life and tens of millions of years of tumultuous global change. And then, the right combination of perseverance and luck helped Shipp discover her.
Shipp still strolls his Montana property from time to time, searching for tell-tale signs that something exciting might be hiding in the dirt. He invites his paleontologist friends, including Mallon, to come out and join him. So far they haven’t found anything more than pieces and parts — a few teeth, fragments of bone. And Shipp acknowledges it would be “beyond a reasonable expectation” to think he’d ever make another discovery like Judith.
“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.”