The triceratops lies on its side, half-encased in rock, with its impressive nose horn and frill exposed.
There are ribs and vertebrae, leg and arm bones, even impressions of its leathery, hexagonal skin pattern.
And the eye-popper — the teeth of raptors embedded in its petrified neck and back, providing clues about how the mighty triceratops might have met its end 68 million years ago on what is now the plains of Montana.
The giant fossil, still nestled in its wide plaster cast, is awaiting rebirth at Dino Lab, a Victoria company and private museum that brings the skeletal remains of prehistoric creatures out of the rock and back to form — and, in a way, back to life.
Carly Burbank and Terry Ciotka have been resurrecting dinosaur skeletons for museums and private collectors around the world for decades — and since 2019 in Victoria. They’ve done Tyrannosaurus Rex and triceratops, restoring some of the most complete skeletons of those species, and collected and put together pieces of many others.
Dino Lab is one of only a handful of companies in North America that do the painstakingly intricate work of separating rock, or matrix, from bones, creating the missing pieces using 3D printers and delivering full-size, mounted skeletons.
The company’s restoration work appears in museums in Europe, Australia and the U.S., along with the Royal Tyrrell Museum and Royal Ontario Museum — Canada’s world-famous dinosaur museums — and private collections around the world.
“When you find a bone, you’re the first human in history to see that bone … so it’s a neat feeling,” said Ciotka. “There’s not many companies in the world doing what we do.”
In fact, the company is one of only two in Canada — the other is Research Casting International, headquartered in Trenton, Ont.
All of the specimens that come through Dino Lab originate from private dinosaur hunters in the U.S., who strike deals with private landowners in the fossil hotbeds of South Dakota, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. In those states, in what was once a tropical climate filled with dinosaurs, landowners own surface rights, and in some states, even mineral rights — what’s beneath the surface.
The lucrative trade in bones is the subject of the popular television show Dino Hunters on the Discovery Network, where ranchers and dealers dig out fossils. The finds are sold to private collections and museums, which sometimes buy them with the help of private companies and donors.
Sotheby’s in New York sold the most complete T.Rex skull ever recovered for $6.069 million US in December. A gorgosaurus — one of only 20 ever found — went for $6.1 million last summer. The T.Rex, nickname SUE — a replica of which will appear at the Royal B.C. Museum next month — sold for $8.4 million in 1997, a record shattered by a T.Rex called Stan that sold at Christie’s Auction House in 2020 for $31.8 million.
In Canada, particularly in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, private digs for significant fossils are not allowed and any discoveries have to be reported to the province. Any common surface fossils found can be kept by the finder, but can’t leave the province or be sold — and should be reported with photos and location, said Victoria Arbour, chief paleontologist at the Royal British Columbia. She said all fossils in Canada are by law property of the Crown.
Arbour is aware of the work Dino Lab has been doing and has visited the company’s workshops and museum. She said private fossil hunters and companies like Dino Lab that do restorations often have more resources when it comes to finding and processing dinosaur fossils because museum budgets for digs and staff are limited.
The two have different roles, she said. “Dino Lab is a business and the museum is a public trust to hold fossils in perpetuity. Commercial companies can put resources into expeditions because they have potential profits at the end.”
Burbank and Ciotka are brokers and restoration specialists, not paleontologists, though both are avid dinosaur enthusiasts who say their goal is to preserve ancient history and help get fossils out of the ground and on display, either in museums or private collections.
Burbank, originally from Alberta, has an arts background, while Ciotka, originally from Yorkton, Sask., took a job more than two decades ago as an agent to sell dinosaur fossils at a Calgary company. He spent 14 years buying and selling fossils before the couple went out on their own, processing bones for U.S. customers, first out of their garage in Calgary and the last several years in Victoria.
Ciotka estimates the couple has produced more than a dozen full skeletons and several skulls sold to museums and collectors. “The market has just exploded,” he said.
Dino Lab does not disclose what its pays for fossils or what it earns when finished skeletons are delivered.
Ciotka said it’s rare for paleontologists to like a commercial company “because we’re not academics,” but he believes Dino Lab has earned their respect.
“We’ve donated a lot of items to museums and make things accessible to museums, inviting them here when we get items that I think [are] of interest,” said Ciotka. “I always offer dinosaurs to museums first and I do what I can to make sure it gets there, even if I get private clients to put a dinosaur in there on private loan.
”We’ve had pretty much all the world’s top paleontologists here and it’s wonderful “
Dino Lab has a triceratops recently purchased from a U.S. dino hunter by a client that, once finished, will be 21 feet long and 10 feet high. More than likely, it will be sold to a museum.
“If it goes to a museum, the price is attainable, or we try to make it attainable,” said Burbank. “But sometimes the owner, whoever funds the dig and funds the work, will want to put it in auction. If they do that, it can go for way more than necessarily fair, but we can’t control that.”
Burbank said if they are aware that a museum is looking for a T.Rex, and know someone has found one, they can approach the museum and say: “There’s one here, would you like it? And they can fund the whole project — pay the landowner, pay the people who dig it up, pay us to prep it and do what they want with it.”
Finding and preparing a triceratops for the Melbourne Museum in Australia was Dino Lab’s latest mega project.
“It was the most complete triceratops ever found,” Ciotka said of the remains unearthed in Montana. “I was there at the dig and through luck, the Melbourne museum contacted me looking for dinosaurs. It was the first dinosaur the Australian government ever purchased, and now they’ve contacted me and said that Horridus is lonely and they want me to find some friends for him.”
A cast of the giant skull dating back 67 million years is on display at Dino Lab.
Four massive T.rex skeletons have been completed by Dino Lab and are on display around the world, in Germany, Japan, China and a fourth currently on a world tour that’s considered the second most complete T.rex skeleton on record at 12 feet tall and 40 feet long.
At Dino Lab, a copy of the latter skull is available for visitors to view, even step inside for a selfie, and it’s been taken to schools for kids to piece back together.
Skeletons of the zephyrosaur, allosaur and othnelisaur species grace the halls of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen; an adult allosaur dubbed Dracula is at a museum in Middle East, and a maisaura is on display at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center
Dino Lab has also completed three full triceratops skulls, a pachycephalosaur skull and two T.rex skulls.
The slow, painstaking process
Not many people can go home after work and say they were in the brain case of a T.Rex all day.
But Melissa Kay can — and is — literally in the head of the fierce prehistoric creature.
Bent over a work bench at Dino Lab’s new James Bay location, Kay uses a scalpel to gently carve away the “matrix” of petrified rock from the big skull of Rhonda, the name diggers gave the beast while it was being excavated in North Dakota last year.
The jaw bones filled with giant teeth have already been restored, and colleagues Amanda Brownschlaigle-Miller and Dana Whitcomb are nearby, working on revealing the vertebrae sections leading up to skull.
The whole process will take months before the T.Rex skull is mounted and shipped to an undisclosed client
“It’s not a job for impatient people,” said Kay, who has a background in fine arts. “You just really take your time, and get to know [the T.Rex]. You’re close to the work, so it’s very easy to image what [Rhonda] would have been like when she was alive.”
Brownschlaigle-Miller works with a toothbrush and dentist’s pick. “We’re not always lucky enough to get them all in one piece … we do a little puzzle working to compare all of the parts and we amalgamate them together as they should have been,” she said.
“It depends on the matrix,” she added. “The current specimen is relatively soft, so we can do it with knife work, whereas most other pieces we have to use a little air-powered jackhammer. I was working on a small piece of a triceratops and it took about two weeks of solid scribing because it was just so dense and we have to be careful.
“We want to bring as many of the original textures to light. Every animal is a little different based on the environment they are preserved in.”
Missing pieces of the skull are recreated through 3D printing technology, which has helped speed the process of creating full skeletons. Dino Lab has six of the machines with at least two or three going at any given time.
Previously, new parts had to be cast and sculpted by hand — some still are — and companies would have to find similar specimens or guess which to copy. Now with technology, Ciotka says missing parts from several species can be accessed, scanned and 3D-printed with the click of a button.
Dino Labs takes thousands of pictures and uses time-lapse photography of each specimen to document everything.
The scanned pieces usually end up with Elaine Vallis, an arts graduate who paints the replacements to match the original bone.
“I always was a dinosaur lover,” said Vallis. “I went to art school, which is where my painting knowledge comes from. I’ve always been fascinated with natural history, dinosaurs and science and we’re lucky to be able to do this work.
The finished bones with some fragments glued together go on to a welding team made up of Lina and Ry Williams and Ry’s brother, Nate, who twist and turn metal frames and supports that hold and display the skeletons, sometimes weighing thousands of kilograms.
On some of the skeleton mountings, pieces are attached with magnets so museums can remove them to study in labs.
Vallis said she calls the work “science-adjacent.” “We’re doing the work that scientists and paleontologists will see in museums and can study. To be able to learn from paleontologists who come and visit us is really rewarding. And being the first people to see and touch and work on these things is truly amazing.”
So you want to collect fossils
You can collect fossils in B.C. if you find them on the surface, but there are three main rules to remember :
1. You can only collect common fossils from the land surface, and there must be enough that collecting a few will not deplete the site. Collection must be for recreational not commercial purposes.
2. You become a caretaker of a collected fossil, not the owner, so you cannot sell it. All fossils are the property of the Crown.
3. Check before you dig. There may be Crown land authorizations for resource extraction that are incompatible with fossil collecting. Record the geographic position of the site (latitude and longitude co-ordinates) using Global Positioning System, and notify the province’s Fossil Management Office and Royal B.C. Museum. If you find significant fossils, such as vertebrate remains, unusual or rare invertebrate or plant fossils, report it by using a Report a Fossil form at gov.bc.ca/fossil-management.
For information on Dino Labs, go to dinolabinc.ca.
For fossil information in B.C. or report a find, go to bit.ly/3LXdZnc
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