One college student made a discovery from "the land before time" on a recent paleontology dig: He unearthed a partial Triceratops skull.
Harrison Duran, a fifth-year biology student from the University of California, Merced, found the 65-million-year-old fossil in the badlands of North Dakota.
"I can't quite express my excitement in that moment when we uncovered the skull," Duran said in a university-issued news release. "I've been obsessed with dinosaurs since I was a kid, so it was a pretty big deal."
The fossil was discovered in part of the Hell's Creek formation, known among experts as a treasure trove for fossils from different eras — namely, the Upper Cretaceous and lower Paleocene eras, or anywhere from 100.5 to 23 million years ago. The rock formation spans Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
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Duran was accompanied by Michael Kjelland, an "experienced excavator" and biology professor at Mayville State University in North Dakota. The two met at a conference and bonded over their love of dinosaurs, later teaming to form a nonprofit company, Fossil Excavators.
Kjelland arranged their dig at Hell's Creek — although he previously found a Triceratops skull there, he expected he and Duran would only find plant fossils this time around, according to the release.
The two of them decided to name the skull "Alice," in honor of the land owner. The skull was found among plant fossils from the Cretaceous period, providing insight into what the Earth might have been like when Alice died.
"It is wonderful that we found fossilized wood and tree leaves right around, and even under, the skull,” Duran said. “It gives us a more complete picture of the environment at the time.”
It wasn't easy to get Alice out of the ground, though.
It took a full week to excavate the bones, and the fragile skull had to be stabilized with a specialized glue.
A local cattle rancher then helped the two men extract the skull. Once it was out, "Alice was coated in foil and plaster, wedged onto a makeshift box and lifted onto a truck," according to the release.
The skull was wrapped in a memory foam mattress before being transported to Kjelland's lab. The professor hopes the fossil can one day be put on display for others to observe and enjoy.
“The goal is to use this find as an educational opportunity, not just reserve Alice in a private collection somewhere so only a handful of people can see her," Kjelland said.
In the meantime, Duran and Kjelland want to create a cast of the skull that can be displayed at UC Merced. One day, the real skull might even make an appearance on campus.
"It’s such a rare opportunity to showcase something like this, and I’d like to share it with the campus community," Duran said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California college student finds 65-million-year-old Triceratops skull