Meet Jude, the 76-million-year-old dinosaur

Obscure no more: She weighed ‘somewhere between a rhinoceros and an elephant’. © Mike Skrepnick

This week Judith’s bones go on display at a museum for the first time. She has been hailed as a heroine, a survivor, a sufferer and an original. Are we reading too much into her life story?

Bill Shipp is a successful nuclear physicist. So when he decided to ‘semi-retire’ and take up fossil-hunting in 2005, he was not really expecting to find anything. Still, he had recently bought a ranch in Montana, a state which is famous for its abundance of dinosaur bones — and he decided paleontology might be a fun weekend activity.

He hired someone to show him the ropes. And on their first afternoon, after just a couple of hours, he spotted a white object lodged in a hillside.

It was a large leg bone — and it was roughly 76m years old. Shipp quickly hired a team of volunteers to help him dig up the rest of the fossil. They spent the next few years piecing together what they found.

It was not just an amazing dinosaur skeleton. It was a brand new species, a cousin of the triceratops which has now been named Spiclypeus shipporum. Shipp and his team call her Judith.

Discovering a new species was ‘very exciting’, he said. ‘You get to do that once in a lifetime, if you’re really lucky. I mean, really, really lucky.’

But his luck had not run out. As they studied Judith’s bones, they began to discover an incredible life story. She had arthritis in one leg, meaning she probably had to hobble around in great pain. There was a puncture wound in her skull, about the size of her own horn; the scientists think that she was probably attacked by her herd, perhaps because she was slowing them down.

And yet her injuries show signs of healing; she survived for months, even years, afterwards. ‘She was tough, no doubt about that.’

Shipp tries not to be too ‘romantic’ about his find, but admits it is hard to ignore the lessons about ‘luck and perseverance’. Judith survived around ten years of a difficult life. Her bones were preserved for tens of millions more throughout massive global change, until Shipp was led straight to her. Now she is being called an ‘inspiration’.

People power

Be careful, warn scientists. We should not project our own emotions onto creatures too much — it muddies the waters between fantasy and genuine scientific understanding. This dinosaur was not some gritty hero who defied the odds and eventually found fame; it may not even have been female. But it does offer us another glimpse into life during the Cretaceous period. That should be interesting enough on its own terms.

There is no harm in seeing reflections of ourselves in the natural world, counter others. Anthropomorphism — giving animals human characteristics — can help people to feel much more connected to the world around them. That is not to be sniffed at, especially when we are teetering on the edge of one of the worst extinctions since Judith and her friends walked the Earth.

You Decide

  1. We referred to Judith as ‘she’ or ‘her’ for most of this story. When we used ‘it’, did your feelings about the dinosaur change?
  2. Do we treat animals too much like people?

Activities

  1. Tell the person sitting next to you about your most recent encounter with an animal (either in real life or online). Did you think of it as having human-like emotions or characteristics? How did that change your response to it?
  2. Research some of the other dinosaurs which lived in North America during the Cretaceous period. Write a short story which envisions a day in their life.

Some People Say...

“We have to change truth a little, in order to remember it.”

George Santayana

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does it matter if we think of animals like people?
Anthropomorphising animals is extremely common — just think of the cartoons you watched as a child. But all of those talking animals have been found to affect how we think about nature, which changes our behaviour towards it: we might think a dangerous creature is safe to approach, or we might intervene in an animal’s life and end up hurting it.
Can I see Judith in real life?
Her fossil is going on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature, which has one of the best horned dinosaur collections in the world. It was here that Shipp first bumped into Jordan Mallon, a research scientist who later helped him to place Judith’s species alongside other, similar dinosaurs.
How do you pronounce Spiclypeus shipporum?
‘Spi-CLIP-ee-us ship-POR-um.’

Word Watch

Montana
A north-western US state which is home to several fossil beds.
Triceratops
Like a triceratops, the Spiclypeus shipporum has horns and a large bone frill around its neck. The two species lived in the same period, and were both plant eaters; but at 30 feet long, a fully grown triceratops was around twice the size of spiclypeus.
Judith
The fossil was named after the Judith River rock formation where it was found. The site has revealed several other fossils in the past, preserved in a thick layer of sediment.
Global change
An asteroid which probably killed the rest of the dinosaurs hit the Earth 10m years after Judith died. The continents shifted position. The world experienced dramatic climate change, including ice ages. And, of course, one of the most destructive events was the arrival of human beings.
Extinctions
There have been five mass extinctions in the last half-billion years, including that of the dinosaurs 65m years ago. Thanks to humans, scientists warn that we could be in the midst of a sixth; the rate of extinction is 100 times higher than it should be.

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