Published: March 30, 2014
The "chicken from hell" has looks only a fossil geek - possibly a mother hell chicken - could love: a long, sharp beak and bony crown reminiscent of a conquistador's helmet, creepily extended forelimbs tipped with fearsome talons, and, when it was roaming the humid, Midwestern marshes some 66 million years ago, an emu-like covering of feathers.
The lizard-bird hybrid - a newly identified species of oviraptorid originally thought not to exist in North America - weighed about 500 pounds, measured roughly 9 feet long and 8 feet tall, and was fast, a handy trait for a creature that shared the closing act of the dinosaur stage with the planet's most awesome predator, Tyrannosaurus rex.
"It was fast and ferocious, and almost certainly had a bad attitude," said Mike Triebold, a professional fossil hunter, self-taught paleontologist and owner of the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park. "You wouldn't want to have one as a pet."
Shortly after the fossilized skeleton was discovered in 1998 by professional fossil hunter Fred Nuss at a site in South Dakota's Hell Creek Formation, Triebold and his team of mostly trained-in-the-field fossil collectors were brought in to assist in collecting and documenting the find. Triebold Paleontology then spent years meticulously preparing and restoring the bones at the company's lab, thereby earning exclusive rights to sell reproductions of the skeleton.
For more than a decade, a fully articulated prototype cast from the original bones - one of only a handful worldwide, all made at Triebold's lab - has been on display in the museum, where it's been known by the playfully devilish name that's a nod to the site where it was found and the creature's disturbing resemblance to a giant, fiendish version of the common flightless bird.
This month, after years of studying the bones Triebold's crew helped retrieve and restore, a team of scientists with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Utah officially bestowed a name: Anzu wyliei. Anzu, from a feathered demon god in ancient Mesopotamian mythology, and wyliei, in honor of a Carnegie Museum benefactor's grandson, who instantly became the envy of 7-year-olds the world over.
"He's kind of a big deal right now," Triebold said.
Triebold hopes Anzu wyliei's identification and pop star status will drive traffic to his museum, the public wing of an operation built around a world-class backstage business in the commercial fossil industry. As for the global excitement the new dinosaur species has sparked, that's nothing new for Triebold, who's been finding, restoring and selling dinosaur fossils and casts for a quarter-century.
"We are always surrounded by new discoveries and discoveries yet to be made in our lab," he said. "We see so many things that no human has ever seen before that we almost get used to it ... almost."
Center houses paleo lab
With glass-walled wings, faux palms and a jungle-themed entrance that harkens to the movie "Jurassic Park," the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center comes as a bit of a surprise for those traveling through Woodland Park. You'd expect a ski shop, a doughnut place, even a Walmart with a rustic, log-cabin facade. But a dinosaur center?
Triebold's brainchild is far more than another roadside attraction, however.
The $3.5 million center houses one of the world's more active paleo labs, where fossil technicians clean, prepare and restore the fossilized bones and bone fragments that Triebold and his field team collect during regular excursions to sites in Montana, Kansas and the Dakotas. The company also makes dinosaur molds and skeletal casts, examples of which can be found at museums and universities worldwide, including the Smithsonian and the Tokyo National Museum.
"You can go to any of these huge, big-city museums and see these skeletons. Or, you could just come to Woodland Park," said Triebold, who opened the center in his hometown to save himself a long commute to work.
With thick silver hair and beard, the 61-year-old looks the part of a fossil hunter, especially in the floppy brimmed hat he wears in the field. Like many dinosaur fans, he discovered the passion early and was an active hobbyist as a boy. Then he grew up and moved on, until a moment of clarity in his mid-30s led to a major career shift.
"Everyone should do something they love, that they can put their heart into," said Triebold, an avid gardener who also collects and restores classic cars. "If you have a crappy job you don't like, do something else."
For him, that something else was dinosaurs.
Company founded in 1989
Many relevant fossils aren't uncovered by academically trained paleontologists but by amateur collectors and professionals such as Triebold, who offers royalties in exchange for the rights to look for and collect fossils on private property by and large in the West and Midwest, an area once covered by a vast inland sea.
When he founded the company in 1989, Triebold was living in North Dakota. His plan at the time was to collect, prepare and sell fossils. A year later, at a dig in Kansas, he uncovered the bones of a monstrous prehistoric marine reptile that made him rethink his operation. The specimen was an exquisite example of the dominant sea predator in the late Cretaceous period.
"He was just a really nice mosasaur," said Triebold, his voice going a little dreamy. "If I'd sold the original, then it would be gone forever, but if I made a good cast, I knew I could sell the copies."
Triebold Paleontology was one of the first companies in the world to offer commercial molding and casting of dinosaur skeletons. For the first 15 years, it was based in industrial buildings, first in North Dakota and then in Woodland Park, where Triebold and his wife moved in 1996.
The current center was conceived when Triebold sketched the building's outline - which later won a design award - on a cocktail napkin in the early 2000s, envisioning a dual-purpose location that would house a high-tech lab as well as educational and interpretive displays to teach the public about the team's projects.
It's impossible to list here all the cool, hard-to-pronounce artifacts found in the museum, 80 percent of which Triebold's team discovered and collected. Highlights include an 18-foot Xiphactinus, the largest example of the prehistoric aquatic predator ever found.
"We're the only company in the world that does three-dimensional giant fish," said Triebold, whose center celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. "Before us, people didn't know what they looked like out of the rock."
The museum is managed by Triebold's wife, JJ, and employs 15, including Triebold's daughter, who runs the gift shop, and son-in-law. Ten specialists focus on fossil work in the field and lab, delicately separating rock from dinosaur bone using miniature sand blasters, dental equipment and other detail tools; from there, specimens move to another station for reproduction via molds and casts. Further down the line, a final touch of paint is added to the casts.
Enjoying their work
From discovery to sale, the average elephant-sized dinosaur can require up to 20,000 hours of labor. Casts are made to order, with buyers choosing a dinosaur from the catalog or museum "showroom," then deciding on the pose in which they'd like the creature arranged. The biggest and finest skeletal casts can command eye-popping prices. Private collectors and foundations could expect to pay around $40,000 for a Pachycephalasaurus, a squat, 10-foot dinosaur that walked on two legs.
"You could sell a dinosaur for a million dollars and still end up losing money," Triebold said. "You have to realize that took 10 people a year of labor from start to finish."
Rest assured, they had fun in the process. Triebold's employees enjoy their work and working with each other. Job titles in the lab are casual or, possibly, made up on the spot. "Assistant to the curator? Sure, that works," said Jacob Jett, a lab employee who regularly joins Triebold for field excursions.
"I've worked here for 10 years, and worked at the Natural History Museum in Kansas before that, so I've got a lot of time under my belt," said museum curator Anthony Maltese, who also splits his time between the lab and the field. "This is better than any academic job."
Upstairs in the offices, a crack team of computer experts uses space-age technology to help reconstruct the Earth's oldest inhabitants, creating duplicates as well as scale or mirror-image versions of dinosaur bones using a laser scanner and computer-guided 3D printer that constructs the replicas from plastic before one's eyes.
"In the past, we'd have to sit there and carve an image, but this is much faster and more exact," Maltese said.
A highlight among the team's current works-in-progress is Pete III, one of the more complete Daspletosaurus skeletons ever found. The specimen, collected by Triebold in 2006, could turn out to be a new species of the T-rex ancestor. But that's a discovery for another day, a decade or so down the road after the academics finish their research.
"What I like is bringing new animals to the world," Triebold said. "People ask all the time if I have a fossil collection. I do. It's in museums all over the world."
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364