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Braswell discovers, excavates Triceratops

MADISON – Jim Braswell describes himself as an amateur/avocational paleontologist. However, his work advanced to the next level by reclaiming “Donna,” a triceratops that he discovered in the North Dakota badlands.

“I grew up collecting fossils in North Alabama with my family. This is an incredible area to find mostly marine fossils from the Cambrian through Cretaceous periods within a couple hours’ drive of Madison,” Braswell said.

“Finding an incredible fossil and having it end up in a museum is the stuff of dreams,” he said. He enjoys all fossils — from common shells and corals here to great dinosaurs in world museums.

In 2008, Braswell joined a group led by Dr. Steve Nicklas at University of North Georgia. Braswell’s first expedition to North Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation was … “a magical place for dinosaur lovers (with) Ankylosaurs, Pachycephalosaurus, Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

Finding a single dinosaur bone would have been remarkable but Braswell was destined for greater reward.

“Completely exhausted from hiking up buttes and mesas, I was strolling through a low wash,” Braswell said. He discovered a little mound with numerous bone fragments and then noticed large pieces of vertebrae and part of a lower jaw.

“Turns out, it was the remains of one of the most loved dinosaurs, a Triceratops,” Braswell said.

The 2009 field season ended, and Braswell was forced to wait one excruciating year to return. He immediately named the dinosaur, “Donna,” to honor his wife.

In 2010, Braswell returned to North Dakota. The dinosaur jaw was attached to the skull, more than six feet long. “I absolutely was in awe uncovering … an incredible animal no other human had ever seen … not at all 66 million years,” he said.

By 2015, Braswell discovered articulated bones (in lifelike positions). “Articulated bones are very rare, especially Triceratops feet. Apparently, T-Rex found Triceratops feet tasty, but this Triceratops still had feet,” Braswell said.

After 18 months, Donna’s bones were mounted in Georgia and transported to southern Michigan. Tyler and Caitlin Horning paid for Donna’s excavation, preparation, mounting and then donated the dinosaur to Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich.

In January 2018, the Braswells attended Donna’s unveiling by curator Dr. Anthony Swinehart at Daniel M. Fisk Museum of Natural History at Hillsdale College.

“The museum will be Donna’s permanent home — dream fulfilled!” Braswell said.

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