WINIFRED, Mont. — For six years, Bill Shipp has been keeping a secret from his neighbors, which isn’t easy in this town of about 150 folks on the southern edge of the Missouri River Breaks.
On Wednesday, he broke his long-held silence before a crowd of about 35 locals at the Winifred Museum, unveiling a replica of a 75-million-year-old dinosaur skull he excavated from his property. The museum will be the new home for the replica, one of four created from the repositioned fragments of fossilized bone.
The beaked, three-horned, frill-headed ceratopsian dinosaur is believed to be the most complete skull of this species ever found, according to Chris Ott, a paleontologist who authored a paper on the fossil that is still awaiting publication.
“We can look at every other horned dinosaur and say they are nothing like this one,” he said.
How it mainly differs, Ott said, is that this dinosaur’s two horns near its eyes stick straight out instead of forward, and its frill — the large, rough-edged bony plate behind its eyes — is ornamented in a style never seen. When alive, the adult may have weighed around three tons, with a brain the size of a beer can. It ate plants, breaking off branches with its large, sharp beak.
“It takes a lot to impress me with a dinosaur anymore, but I’m impressed with this one,” Ott said.
Shipp, a semi-retired physicist, said he found the fossil in 2005 while walking on his property six miles from town with local fossil hunter Gil Patrick.
“We paleontologists have a strong belief in beginner’s luck,” Ott said. “I know people who have been fossil hunting for 50 years and never found anything like this.”
The fossil was embedded in a hillside with its rear end closest to the surface. The first sign of the beast was a hind leg bone. Although Shipp had to leave shortly after the discovery, he enlisted Patrick and his friend, George Fisher, to begin excavating the site.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were into,” Fisher said. “It was fun. It’s pretty exciting.”
Paleontologist Joe Small was enlisted to help manage the dig, while paleontologist Peter Larson assembled the pieces once they had been taken from the site and created the mold from the reassembled pieces.
The reassembled original fossil — except for its formidable beak — is at the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota. The fossilized beak remains with the replica in Winifred.
Shipp said it was important to him to unveil the fossil replica he calls Judith — because it was found in the Judith River Breaks — to his friends and neighbors first. It’s also important to him that the replica stay at the Winifred Museum.
“I feel like, since she was found six miles from here, she’s part of this community, she’s part of this environment, she should continue to be part of the environment,” he said.
Museum curator Helen Rich didn’t know about the dinosaur donation until last Thursday, when Shipp came to her school classroom to speak to her. At the time, she was dressed in a red cowboy hat and cape as part of a spirit week event.
“So this has been fast and furious,” she said. “Our Tonka toy collection of 3,000 pieces used to be our claim to fame. Now …”
Winifred resident Ron Poertner said the donation of the replica is an incredible addition to the museum. An amateur fossil hunter himself, he said there are fragments of dinosaur bones scattered across the prairie landscape, but there are few that can be pieced together into a specimen like Shipp found.
Asked how much it cost to excavate, clean and have a replica made of the dinosaur skull, Shipp joked that his wife, Linda, had funded the project by saving her grocery money.
“Linda has frequently said she wished we’d never found it,” he said.
“And I hope we never find another,” she joked back.
Despite the cost and a lot of back-breaking work to dig the fossil out of its sandstone and bentonite bed, Shipp assured a questioner that he would continue to look for other fossils.
“You can’t not look,” he said. “We’ll be looking tomorrow.”