This Triceratops specimen is named after John Bell Hatcher, the paleontologist who discovered the species in 1888.
In 1905, the specimen went on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and for more than 20 years, it was the only example of a Triceratops exhibited anywhere on the planet.
But back in 1905, no complete Triceratops skeletons had ever been unearthed. To create the exhibit, paleontologists pieced together bones from 10 different individuals. This created something of a crude composite - Hatcher’s skull was too small, his front legs were different lengths, and his rear feet belonged to an entirely different species - with the wrong number of toes.
Hatcher’s posture was also rather ungainly. To match the turn-of-the-century notion that he was a swamp dweller, the specimen’s front end was slung low and crocodile-like, with his elbows nearly at shoulder level.
The specimen was the centerpiece of what was then called the “Hall of Extinct Monsters.” He was posed without any suggestion of motion, like a pinned butterfly.
At the time, dinosaurs were seen as curiosities - sluggish evolutionary first drafts doomed by their own strangeness. “The way they were presented didn’t so much lend itself to opening up a window to science more broadly,” says Matthew Carrano, Smithsonian’s Curator of Dinosauria. “It was more like, ‘look at these weird objects from the past.’”
The preparators of the day treated Hatcher’s bones more like building materials than priceless artifacts. He was locked into his uninspired pose by metal rods and screws drilled directly into his skeleton.
“The 1905 mount did irreparable damage to the fossil,” says Pete Kroehler, a fossil preparator who worked extensively on Hatcher in 1998. But Hatcher was a star in his day, and drew crowds to the museum.
Then, in 1996, a visitor to the museum was admiring Hatcher when a chunk of fossilized pelvis bone fell to the ground, to the dismay of a nearby security guard.
A closer look revealed that humidity was causing minerals to grow in the fossilized bones, causing Hatcher to break up from the inside.
In 1998, Hatcher was removed from display so conservators could treat the advancing condition, and set about creating a new, more scientifically accurate mount.
The Smithsonian took advantage of Hatcher’s time in conservation to complete the first 3D scan of an entire dinosaur skeleton. This allowed them to adjust Hatcher’s oddly proportioned bones, and to create a 1:6 scale model of the skeleton.
With the 3D scan and new physical model that could be easily manipulated, the Smithsonian hosted a symposium of the world’s top Triceratops experts. The group agreed on a more upright posture for Hatcher that remains the scientific community’s best guess at how the dinosaur might have carried itself. The specimen went back on display, posed with his head lowered and one leg raised to suggest he was turning to defend himself.
In 2019 the exhibit was reconfigured to show Hatcher lying dead, being eaten by a Tyrannosaurus rex - helping to highlight an extinct ecosystem, with the T. rex at the top as predator, and Triceratops being preyed upon.
Carrano said that it's quite possible a T. rex really did scavenge Hatcher after something else had already put an end to the Triceratops.
Hatcher’s new display also echoes what brought his remains to the museum in the first place. “For an animal to become a fossil, the animal has to die and it has to become deeply buried,” says Kirk Johnson, paleontologist and Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “So, part of the story Hatcher's new exhibit tells is that he’s on his way to becoming a fossil.”