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Replica of dinosaur fossil on display at Kadlec in Richland

RICHLAND -- Somewhere in Montana about 75 million years ago, an elderly ceratopsian lay down and died.

It might have been a bone infection that killed her, maybe contracted after a scuffle with a predator -- science likely never will know.

Her life was brief -- maybe just 20 years compared to the vast eons that have passed since -- but the bones that remain may illuminate something new about her kind.

It's a legacy not many creatures who have walked Earth are able to leave.

And through December, visitors to Kadlec Regional Medical Center's lobby will be able to gaze at a replica of her skull and wonder who she was and what kind of life she lived in the late Cretaceous period -- about 10 million years before dinosaurs vanished.

The dinosaur, known as "Judith" for the Judith River Formation in Montana where she was found, was discovered by retired Richland physicist Bill Shipp on his vacation ranch near Winifred, Mont., in 2005.

The actual skeleton is at the Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha, Wis., where scientists can study the bones, but Shipp said he wanted Judith to be available to inspire curiosity in the Tri-Cities.

At an unveiling of the replica on Monday, he said that he had known when he bought the ranch that it was in country known to conceal dinosaur fossils -- the preserved remains of the enormous "thunder lizards" that dominated the planet for more than 160 million years, and have captivated the curiosity of scientists for more than 200 years.

It took more than two years for Judith to emerge from the rock and dirt of Shipp's Montana farm, and another couple of years for her bones to be painstakingly cleaned and assembled.

It's rare for the eons to leave dinosaur skeletons intact. In Judith's case, Shipp and amateur paleontologist Joe Small, who oversaw the dig, found most of her skull and the signature frills that mark her as a ceratopsian. They also found a femur, or leg bone; humerus, or bone that connected her foreleg to her shoulder; part of a pelvis and several ribs and vertebrae.

"This particular collection of bones is extraordinarily well-preserved," Small said.

Although the team refers to Judith as "she," the dinosaur's gender is unknown.

The bones they found were enough to suggest to paleontologists that Judith may be an as-yet-unidentified species of ceratopsian -- a family of four-legged, plant-eating, with horned faces, beaks and bony frills.

Small said Judith would have been about the size of a rhinoceros and probably fairly similar in appearance, with the exception of her frill.

But it's her brow horns that are most notable, and may mark her as a unique species. In other ceratopsians, the brow horns typically point forward, but Judith's point sideways, Small said.

Another remarkable thing about Judith are what her bones tell scientists about her injuries and condition at her death.

After Judith's skeleton was excavated, Shipp brought it home to the Tri-Cities and began enlisting help to learn more about her. Among the people he called was Dr. Edward Iuliano, a Kadlec radiologist.

Iuliano said when he was approached by Shipp and Richland orthopedist Dr. Lewis Zirkle to examine their "friend Judith" he thought he'd be seeing a human patient.

Then they pulled out a bone several times larger than any human limb, that was rough with osteoarthritis and marred by a bone infection that likely plagued Judith for months before her death.

The arthritis suggested to Iuliano that Judith had lived a long life before she died.

"It immediately struck me this was an old dinosaur, a pretty old lady," Iuliano said. "It is a very unusual and rare finding in a dinosaur to find disease in the bone itself."

Iuliano put Judith's humerus into a CT scanner to get an X-ray and found that the infection had crept into the bone and destroyed some of the marrow.

Kadlec donated the use of the machine, he said.

The bone contained the remnants of a pus channel where the bone would have been eaten away and liquified, he said.

He theorized Monday that Judith may have been attacked by a predator that most likely would have bitten her leg, as her bony frill would have protected her head and neck.

If the predator bit into Judith's leg but didn't kill her, that may have provided an entry point for the infection, he said.

The bone also had a fracture that was caused after the dinosaur's death during the process of fossilization, he said.

Shipp, Small and Iuliano are working with professional paleontologists to produce a paper about Judith that eventually may lead to her being declared a unique species.

But she also may be the first example found in 120 years of a dinosaur called Ceratops Montanus -- one that most paleontologists have dismissed as a species because its existence is based only on the discovery of two unusual brow horns in the late 19th century, Small said.

If Judith is a unique species, Shipp will get the naming rights, but hadn't yet decided on a possible name on Monday, and chuckled at the suggestion of "Shippasaurus."

For Shipp, the most important thing is that people learn from Judith. Once the replica leaves Kadlec, it likely will go to Washington State University Tri-Cities, he said.

"It's part of a journey of discovery and learning," he said. "The goal is for Judith to inspire learning and inquisitiveness about our natural history."

-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com

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