Ellie Sattler was half way through her doctorate when she officially decided she was sick of being asked about dinosaurs. It was probably around the fourth or fifth time she had to explain to her Aunt Heather that her work on fern diversity during the Cretaceous period was, yes, related to dinosaurs in that some dinosaurs ate ferns, but no, she didn't study dinosaurs. She studied ferns, and it would be nice if people recognized how interesting that was.
In the first year of her post-doc, she bought a T-shirt that said “I don't do dinosaurs!” She slept in it on field work for years afterwards. Even when she was sharing a bed with Alan. Especially then, really. It became a joke.
A joke that she forgot the instant she laid hands on a real, living breathing Triceratops, and found herself crying through her smiles.
Alan could keep his theropods. This was the most beautiful thing Ellie had ever seen. She decided right there that she'd find out what was making her sick, even if it took all night.
She squatted down in the grass, looking at the poor trike's drugged moans, and frowned.
“So you haven't been eating the berries, have you? What have you been eating that periodically?”
With any other herbivore, she might have thought they had been taking in the toxins accidentally by eating pebbles that had been mixed up with the berries on the ground. Gastroliths. No, gizzard stones, she corrected herself. This wasn't a geological term, but a veterinary one now. Extant birds and crocodiles, even some mammals were known to swallow pebbles to grind tough plant material in their stomachs. She knew that there had been findings of polished pebbles found in association with sauropods, and of course there was that Psittacosaurus in New York. But she wasn't looking at a Psittacosaurus with its sharp, slicing teeth. This was a Triceratops, and not only could she not think off-hand of any case of a derived ceratopsian being described with putative gastroliths, but as Ellie peered at the dinosaur, she could see the fleshy cheeks over the wide, dense tooth battery. This thing didn't need gizzard stones.
That's years of debate come to an end, she thought.
“They chew their food, don't they?”
“Every bite.” Behind her, Dr. Harding was bagging up their soiled gloves for disposal back at the research center.
Ellie turned around and looked at him. “Do you have any other trikes?”
He shook his head. “We had one other that reached about two thirds of this size. She died last month.”
“What is the death rate of the animals, here?” Ellie hadn't thought about that yet, in her delight at seeing actual living dinosaurs. A cloning facility this innovative must have a few errors for every successful trial. She chewed on her lip, already sore from all the thinking she'd been doing, and glanced back at the giant lying in the grass. How many sisters had she had, that never made it this far?
Yesterday she'd have laughed if someone had suggested she'd be sad for a dead dinosaur.
Harding confirmed her suspicions. “About one fifth of all hatchlings make it to adulthood. Must lower with the trikes.”
“Did you keep the remains?”
“Of course,” he replied. “I'm finished here, so if you want to come back to the lab, I'll show you.”
Harding had a large box of equipment to carry back to the jeep, on top of which lay a few miscellaneous tools that didn't quite fit inside. Before he used both hands to carry his stuff back to the jeep, he handed Ellie a few things to hold for him. Among these was a thick paper file: the trike's medical records.
“Trixie 7,” she read from the file.
“Each of the individual genotypes get a name,” Harding explained. “She was the seventh successful hatchling from the Trixie stem culture.
“Trixie is the only trike?”
“No, we have three. Trixie, Sara and Bob.” Harding glanced over at her. “I didn't name them.”
Driving back to the visitor center under dark gathering clouds, Ellie was free to leaf through the file. It was filled with detailed recordings of Trixie 7's well-being: daily observations from the field; results from blood samples drawn at varying stages of the six week cycle of illness; and a series of x-ray photographs.
“You have an x-ray machine?”
“Adapted from portable machines for use in zoos,” Harding said. “We had to wait a while before they came up with one big enough for use on the trikes, let alone the brachios.
Ellie shook her head in disbelief. “Breaking new ground in the field of veterinary medicine.”
“You have no idea.”
She chuckled softly. “I think I'm getting it.” And she was. It would have been nice, she thought, if they'd brought her or Alan in at an earlier stage in development, but she couldn't deny that Hammond was telling the truth when he said they spared no expense.
She looked over some of the x-rays, puzzling at a few of them before she realized they were cranial views.
“You realize Trixie isn't a Triceratops, right?”
Harding looked away from the trail to frown at her. Not angry or upset, as far as she could tell, but faintly disbelieving. She got the hint, and held up the latest cranial scan in her hand.
“These are parietal fenestrae,” she explained. “Here and...” she found another image with an earlier date, “here. Triceratops had a solid frill.”
She remembered the first time she saw a Centrosaurus skull in the Smithsonian when she was in middle school. The windows in the frill had confused her, until a tour guide explained that only Triceratops had the solid frill. She knew this.
“Look at the earlier images,” was all Harding said, his frown breaking under mild amusement. And when Ellie did so, she was even more confused.
“Wait, this one lacks the fenestrae...” When he nodded, she started leafing through the cranial images, ordering them by date and wishing she had better images. Or more of them.
“No offense to your friend Dr. Grant,” Harding continued, “but some of us were hoping for an Ornithischian expert to spread some light on this.”
“If I had to guess,” Ellie said, holding the adult scan in her hand again.“Based on frill morphology, I'd say this one was Torosaurus.”
It wasn't a huge leap of logic. She knew they were about the same size, and couldn't remember any major post-cranial differences between the two genera, though if she phoned someone at the university she could probably get that confirmed. Ellis strained around in her seat, looking backwards to the distant shape of Trixie 7 staggering to her feet. In the seat behind her Ellie spied more files, and leaned back, finding Sara 4. Those x-rays showed a similar ontogenetic pattern: a solid frilled juvenile with, Ellie thought, apparent thinning in later scans. Sara 4 had died before distinctive fenestrae had appeared.
“How sure are you that Sara and Trixie are the same species?” Suddenly she wished Dr. Wu hadn't gone home already. This was more a question for him.
Harding had some answers, though. “Pretty sure. I think Wu mixed a lot of the DNA from different sources. The differences between Trixie, Sara and Bob are mostly superficial. The Saras always have a slightly smaller frill.”
The tall gates to the park swung open to let them out of the paddock area, and they started along the road by the Velociraptor paddock. Ellie couldn't help but look, thinking the paddock seemed eerily still under the gathering storms.
“I know that Dr. Reyes – she's one of the curators of our wet and skeletal specimens - is campaigning to allow breeding of male specimens,” Harding continued. “That way we can at least find out if there's sexual dimorphism at play. But I don't think she'll have much success, the way things are going . Research doesn't get much of a look in in the fund allocations.”
“The more things change...” Ellie looked down at the images in her hands, and realized that she was tapping them against her knees in excitement. “I'd like to see Trixie again.” she said.
“Of course, Dr. Sattler,” Harding replied. “I just hope she's feeling better, tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, Ellie thought. Tomorrow she'd have answers.