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Bone machine 

Paleontologists' eyes opened at animal hospital

Last Tuesday morning, several men huddled in front of a computer screen awaiting the results of a CT scan. "You can see the sinus cavity right there," said Anthony Maltese, pointing at the screen.

The 3D scan passed through the skull of the patient on the table. The air was electric as the images appeared. "The palate is shifted a little," Maltese said, "but it's still incredibly intact."

The patient, Bert, was 65 million years old. And Maltese and the others were viewing him at Powers Pet Emergency, on Tutt Boulevard.

Bert was a dinosaur, a thescelosaurus, found during a dig on the Montana-South Dakota border in 2012. He was brought here in an unprecedented collaboration among the pet hospital, Triebold Paleontology and Triebold's public-education arm, the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park.

This wasn't the first time paleontologists had used CT scanners to look inside fossils, but it was still rare — perhaps strangely so, given that this arrangement got started with a simple phone call.

"Most museums don't have their own CT scanners," Triebold business director Matt Christopher explained. "[The pet hospital is] right down the mountain from Woodland Park." It also employs radiologists practiced at reading animal anatomy.

With a few hospital employees looking on, Mike Triebold, owner of Triebold Paleontology and the Dinosaur Resource Center, explained that fossilization usually breaks or moves small bones or structures. But here they could see that little bones around Bert's eyes, ears and mouth were basically intact.

Triebold and Maltese, curator at the Dinosaur Resource Center, are hoping to learn more about how Bert lived. The thescelosaurus was about 10 feet long, stood on two feet and had small, wide hands. It was slow and relatively defenseless, and, as Maltese pointed out on the screen, its brain was small.

"It's this defenseless little dinosaur living amongst all these vicious ones and doing just fine," Triebold said.

Soon Bert was packed away to make space for the day's second fossil, a nearly whole alligator gar (a large freshwater fish) nicknamed Valdagar. Found in the same dig, he's believed to be the most intact alligator gar fossil ever discovered.

The alligator gar is not extinct; it's been around, essentially unchanged, for over 100 million years. But Valdagar is unusual in that he's about 10 million years older than any other alligator gar ever found in North America. Maltese, who discovered him, says Valdagar could be a previously undiscovered subspecies.

"I knew we had something good ... but when we started working on it, I was thrilled," he said. "It's not as sexy as a tyrannosaurus, but it's way more rare. It's way more scientifically important."

On Tuesday, Maltese and Triebold got a scan of Valdagar's body. Mostly, they were interested in what was in his stomach; much like sharks, alligator gars have been found with everything from bones to license plates in their stomachs.

"We know what they're eating in the modern day," Triebold said, "but what were they eating 66 million years ago?" (They were still awaiting those results as of press time.)

The scans won't just benefit Triebold's research, Christopher said. Now the company can send scans and better 3D models of fossils to museums and research institutes around the world.

As for what Powers Pet Emergency gets out of it? "It's mostly educational for us, and it is entertaining, obviously," radiology technician Joe Keefe said. "It's just animals that we don't get to treat very often."

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