Willard: The Tale of an Enormous Triceratops Skeleton
Willard - possibly the largest Triceratops prorsus skeleton ever found - spans 28 feet long and 11.8 feet high. Credit: Diego Mattarelli
Have you ever wondered how a dinosaur skeleton ends up in a museum or public exhibition? Who discovers and digs up the bones? How are the bones stabilized and prepared? And what process is used to restore the missing parts and, eventually, assemble the finished specimen? Read on to find out more about Willard —an astounding fossilized Triceratops prorsus skeleton recently unearthed in the badlands of North Dakota; a specimen so massive that it may be the world’s largest example of the species ever found!
We had the pleasure of getting to know the team behind the discovery of Willard (Alan Komrosky and Monte Bader), as well as the head paleo-preparator of the skeleton (Nils Knötschke). Knötschke’s team, based in Europe, prepared Willard for a major dinosaur exhibit at the Hong Kong Science Museum. The fossil preparation took place in Switzerland and Willard's complete skeleton was mounted in Italy by Bat-Tech — incredibly challenging tasks. Willard’s journey is filled with excitement and surprises. It’s also an example of the valuable collaboration that often occurs amongst commercial diggers, dealers/brokers, and the museum community.
Part I: The Discovery
Many fossils, including dinosaur skeletons, are found by professional fossil hunters. Like their academic counterparts, they share a passion for paleontology and geology, and oftentimes employ many of the same techniques in the field and the lab. Discovering a dinosaur skeleton is a major project that involves skill, experience, unwavering persistence…and a dash of luck — the discovery and excavation of Willard was no exception.
It all started when Alan Komrosky, a seasoned “bone digger” with a knack for unearthing impressive dinosaurs, teamed up with Monte Bader, a local with years of experience negotiating land leases and contracts. Komrosky had dug these lands since the 1990’s with great success and the ranch he had in mind to explore was home to outstanding finds in the not too distant past, including two raptor skeletons. It was located near the sleepy town of Rhame, North Dakota, in Bowman County.
Alan Komrosky and his son, Jackson, at the digsite in Bowman County, North Dakota. Credit: Alan Komrosky
Geologically, this area is part of the Hell Creek Formation, a celebrated source of Late Cretaceous (68 to 66 million year old) dinosaur discoveries. The promising digsite was located in a region known as the The Cedar Buttes Ranch and the Cedar Valley Ranch, a desolate and beautiful landscape of gaping canyons and towering buttes along the Little Missouri River.
It wasn’t an easy project by any stretch of the imagination. The digsite yielded few fossils of significance for nearly two full digging seasons. But there was no lack of hard work from the team members, which included young Everett and Emmerie Komrosky. However, on a fateful day towards the end of season two Everett chanced upon a large sun-bleached vertebra right near the Ranch House — an unexpected place to find a bone! Homing in on this spot near the Ranch House led to the discovery of a complete rib, setting the stage for a wildly productive third season of digging, in which the rest of the enormous skeleton was uncovered throughout the digsite.
Everett Komrosky (Left) and Monte Bader (Right) preparing for the excavation. Credit: Alan Komrosky
It was a truly unprecedented find, and a significant achievement. The nasal horn and femur were undeniably gigantic — larger by far than anything Komrosky had seen before. Based on the femur and pelvic bone length, he estimated that Willard would stand two feet higher at the hip than his closest rivals. Major dinosaur skeletons often receive a name, and this one-of-a-kind Triceratops was affectionally called “Willard” in honour of the former landowner. In the end, Komrosky was “extremely blessed to have played a role in bringing something as grand as Willard to the world…we hope to have more spectacular finds to share with the world in the future!”
Part II: The Preparation and Assembly
After Willard’s discovery, Komrosky got in touch with Peter Lovisek, CEO of Fossil Realm, a Canadian dealer and broker of fossils and other natural history specimens. The hope was to find a buyer, such as a museum or academic institution, that could place Willard on public display. After several months promoting this important skeleton online, Lovisek was contacted by a German dinosaur paleontologist, Nils Knötschke. It soon became apparent that Willard (who spans 28 feet long and 11.8 feet high) was a perfect fit for the incredible dinosaur exhibit Knötschke was involved in, “The Big Eight – Dinosaur Revelation” which would take place at the Hong Kong Science Museum.
Knötschke and his team decided to take on the monumental project of preparing, restoring, assembling and mounting Willard, an especially challenging set of tasks considering that they were on a strict timeline.
We were keen to learn more about the process, and Knötschke was happy to share his crew’s experience with Willard. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Knötschke, conducted by Peter Lovisek.
Peter Lovisek: What were your first thoughts about Willard’s bones, based on the unprepared images you saw? What stood out the most to you, and what convinced you that the skeleton was right for the exhibit?
Nils Knötschke: We spent a long time looking for a Triceratops for a skeleton montage. It was important for us to have very good documentation of the bones in the field, during the excavation, and a quarry map. Many of the Triceratops skeletons that were available for selection did not meet these criteria. With Willard we were very lucky.
A quarry map provides important contextual information about the find, which is essential for the formal scientific study of a fossilized skeleton. Credit: Ivana Brkic
Some of the Triceratops skeletons we looked at were surface collected bones from different animals put together to form one skeleton – definitely not what we were looking for.
The bones of Willard the Triceratops belong to one animal and they were still mostly unprepared – this was also extremely important to us. After the special exhibition at the Hong Kong Science Museum in 2022, Willard will be a new highlight at the Sauriermuseum Aathal (in Seegräben, Switzerland), and it is incredibly important to the team that the dinosaur finds on display are properly documented. This is one of the basic requirements, because only good documentation from the excavation to the preparation to the finished skeleton makes a [formal] scientific treatment of the dinosaur possible.
What also convinced us was the communication with Fossil Realm and the discoverers of the dinosaur. All details concerning the find situation were communicated to us directly.
PL: What did you notice after seeing the bones in person?
NK: We saw that we [had] a lot of work ahead of us. Joking aside, the skeleton was mostly well- to very well- preserved. But difficult [to prepare] bones lay before us — that is normal with a dinosaur discovery! The coordination of the team was important. We had only 3 months to prepare more than 40 original bones. Four preparators worked continuously on the project and four preparators [worked as part of] an additional team from time to time.
Gabrielle Bindellini 3D scanning Willard's bones. Modern technology is now integral to field of paleontology. Credit: Gabrielle Bindellini
The right lower jaw of Willard - reconstructed and CNC milled by Bat-Tech Italia. Credit: Nils Knötschke
PL: Can you briefly explain the main steps required to prepare and restore the specimen?
NK: The preparation was very time-consuming but also worthwhile! Our team first cleaned and further exposed all the bones in the plaster jackets from one side. This is mainly done with fine air scribes. With the vibrating needles, we blasted off the surrounding encasing rock from the bone surface. There is - mostly - a natural separation between rock and bone. This means exposing bone centimetre by centimetre and hardening or bonding it with superglue and depth primer. The separation varied from good to non-existent, but we also removed the stubborn rock residues from the bone surface with a sand blaster.
Willard´s bones were bathed in deep primer to completely stabilize them from the inside and out. Credit: Nils Knötschke
PL: What were the primary challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
NK: The biggest challenge was time. Fortunately, we found Willard in time and the logistics also went smoothly. The Triceratops still had to be transported from America to Switzerland. At the end of November 2021 our "little" dinosaur arrived at the Aathal Museum - I still remember how excited we all were to finally see him live. From January 3, 2022 we started with the preparation. That was a very intensive time. Until April, we prepared the Triceratops bones almost nonstop — from 8:00 in the morning until the early hours of the next day!
We knew we had to be ready by the beginning of April 2022 — otherwise the timing with the skeleton assembly and mounting would no longer [work]. So one night shift followed the next. That's how it is in paleontology.
After 66 million years, the heavy pelvic bones are matched together in the right position for the first time. Credit: Lina Walen
But we had a lot of fun as well. Triceratops is one of the most iconic dinosaurs ever — and we might never prepare a second one! The whole team carried the “Willard spirit” — some of us interrupted their studies for two weeks just to work on the Triceratops.
From the preparation side, very hard clay-ironstone concretions were the proverbial "hardest" nuts we had to crack. Super hard rock that encloses the bone...
In the end, beautiful bones always motivated us to keep going. And also surprising discoveries like the right lower jaw that first appeared during the preparation in the laboratory and the many T. rex bite marks on the bones of Willard — I think these highlights motivated our team.
Willard's bones are full of deep theropod dinosaur bite marks - likely T. rex - some inflicted while he was alive and well-healed, others suggesting scavenging. Credit: Nils Knötschke
PL: How difficult is it to mount a specimen as large and robust as Willard?
NK: Very difficult — the bones of this very large and old Triceratops are [extremely] heavy. So heavy that we always needed help with the preparation to turn the bones over…three people had to move the femur or the pelvic bones. It takes a lot of anatomical knowledge and engineering skills to assemble the original bones. Everything has to be fixed individually in steel clamps, and the skeleton has to look good in the end.
Yolanda Schicker-Siber, Curator of the Sauriermuseum Aathal (Switzerland) lies down beside Willard's massive femur to show scale (the bone measures 4.6 feet long). Credit: Nils Knötschke
PL: Why was Willard such a good fit for this exhibition?
NK: With Willard, the exhibition features one of the biggest Triceratops prorsus skeletons ever discovered and known to science. So that was one of the main reasons for us to choose Willard — a Triceratops skeleton well-documented and from a trustworthy source, [this way] nothing stands in the way of scientific research and exhibition quality.
The gigantic skull of Willard, restored. It measures 7.64 feet long! Credit: Diego Mattarelli
Without a doubt, Willard was one of the stars of The Big Eight exhibit which also showcased seven other outstanding skeletons: Tyrannosaurus, Spinosaurus, Allosaurus, Hesperosaurus, Diplodocus, Hatzegopteryx and a baby Sauropod. Over 890,000 visitors were wowed by Willard and the other skeletons, a record-setting attendance for the Hong Kong Science Museum. Currently, Willard is in Italy — where the skeleton is being refined — getting ready to continue his global journey.