A nearly complete skull of a triceratops unearthed in Eastern Montana will go on the auction block Sunday in Texas.
The enormous skull measures 7½ feet long and more than 5 feet wide across the frill. The estimated sale price is equally hefty - $240,000 to $280,000, according to Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries, which is holding the sale. The minimum bid is $210,000.
"This triceratops skull is definitely among the largest and most complete ever discovered," said David Herskowitz, director of natural history auctions at Heritage. "A relic like this does not come along too often, and we expect that to factor into the bidding. Triceratops are among the most recognizable dinosaurs, and that adds to its desirability."
Found on a ranch in Wibaux County, the skull was kept wrapped in field jackets and plaster and stored at the rancher's house for about a decade. The rancher, who found the fossil, wishes to remain anonymous, Herskowitz said.
The rancher sold the skull to a fossil dealer in Canada, and the dealer hired a paleontologist on the East Coast to prepare it for sale, Herskowitz said. Not until last July, when that work began, was the skull determined to be 93 percent complete.
Heritage's brochure describes the skull's preservation and bone quality as superb, with very little distortion while buried for 68 million years. The fossil received care during its preparation to preserve scientifically valuable information, it said.
The triceratops, which means "three-horned face," had a short, pointed tail and a bulky body and walked on short, sturdy legs with hooflike claws. The dinosaur grew to 30 feet long and 10 feet tall and weighed up to 12 tons. It was a plant eater.
The skull is missing its left brow horn, which may have been sheered off in a battle. The bone indicates that it was broken off while the animal was alive, because there are signs of healing. Most of the restoration work was on the missing horn along with small portions of the frill, eye orbits and nasal areas.
The lower jaws were found intact along with most of their original teeth; most of the teeth in the upper jaws were missing. The frill stretches over 5 feet wide and is naturally fused with the skull, which was common in adults.
The skull's brain case also is complete and well preserved, and shows how small the creature's brain was compared with its huge body. The skull has been mounted on an adjustable steel structure.
Paleontologist Jack Horner, director of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, said triceratops is one of the most common dinosaurs. The museum has one of the world's largest collections of the species, including several skulls that are at least 93 percent complete, he said.
Depending on which parts are missing from the Wibaux County skull, "it could be a very nice specimen," Horner said. He didn't estimate its worth because, he said, he doesn't buy or sell fossils.
"It would be nice if it ended up in a museum, but most museums neither buy or sell fossils, so if it does, it will end up in a private or commercial museum," he said.
The highest bidder will likely be a private collector, Herskowitz said, but many museums also bid on fossils and artifacts.
"If it weren't for the commercial collectors, a lot of this is going to be lost for eternity because the universities and scientific communities don't have the money to excavate and prepare fossils like these," Herskowitz said. In some cases, collectors have donated their collections for scientific studies or to museums.
About a year ago, Heritage sold a complete juvenile duck-billed dinosaur skeleton for $125,000.
"There are a lot of ranches in Montana over fossil formations," Herskowitz said.