This was something that had never been seen before—the full skeletal remains of a baby Pentaceratops, a plant-eating dinosaur with large horns that once roamed what's now North America tens of millions of years ago. The fossils first caught the attention of paleontologists with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science during a trek through the badlands of the Bisti Wilderness in northwestern New Mexico in 2011. They knew they had to find a way to excavate and bring them back to the museum for further study. After years of hard work and some paper pushing, a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter plucked the baby Pentaceratops' skull—encased in plaster—from the wilderness and airlifted it to a waiting cargo truck on Thursday morning.
The team also airlifted the skull of an adult Pentaceratops that was found about 10 miles away. Traditional means for excavating and removing the fossils were out the window because crews were working in the wilderness, museum curator Spencer Lucas says. No vehicles or mechanized equipment are allowed, so the team had to pack in hundreds of pounds of plaster, countless jugs of water, and a battery of heavy tools for the job. Pentaceratops, its head decorated with five horns, lived about 70 million years ago, and Lucas says examining the skulls will help answer some questions—including what the horns were for, and how the young Pentaceratops met its end. Less than 10 adult Pentaceratops skulls have been unearthed over the past century, and this marks the first baby skeleton and skull to ever be recovered, Lucas said. (Read more dinosaurs stories.)