• Original Reporting
  • On the Ground
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
On the Ground Indicates that a Newsmaker/Newsmakers was/were physically present to report the article from some/all of the location(s) it concerns.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Pops the Triceratops, found in 1982 in northern Weld County, lies in a bed of foam at Gaston Designs in Fruita, Colorado, as he awaits mounting on his new display table, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

FRUITA — Here lies Pops. This celebrity fossil is nestled in a cushion of dirty foam. One of his 69-million-year-old horns points to a nearby worker bagging up casts of Tyrannosaurus teeth and Allosaurus claws. Pops’ left dinner plate-size eye socket points up at a ceiling where abandoned wasp hives dangle next to an antique New Guinea canoe — just a bit of an eclectic, to say the least, collection of folk art, natural wonders and dinosaur bones that cover every spare bit of wall and ceiling space in Pops’ temporary home. 

Maybe best not to mention the cast of a human skull that peers out at Pops from a glass case.

But the legions of Weld County fans and worldwide social media followers of this Triceratops (or maybe something older and rarer) needn’t worry. Pops is in good hands — expert hands — in an outbuilding out in the middle of Fruita-area farm fields. He will be home soon, spruced up, and back on display in the Weld County Administration building where that eye socket will be aimed at everyone entering the building.

The new and improved Pops is expected to have quite the welcome-home bash sometime in April. Pops is quite the popular guy.

“There will be a big reveal after his big makeover. It’s amazing how excited people are about this,”  Weld County spokeswoman Jennifer Finch said.

Pops, as the fossil has fondly been called since he was donated to Weld County 37 years ago, ended up on the Western Slope towards the end of a two-and-a-half-year-long restorative, face-lifting journey. He initially was loaned to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in 2020 where he was examined by paleontologists who popped a surprise on Pops’ fans: Pops might be much rarer than your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Triceratops. He is possibly an Eotriceratops, an ancestor estimated to be 1.5 million to 2 million years older than the Triceratops. Only one Eotriceratops skull has been unearthed and identified while thousands of Triceratops bones have turned up.

Or, Pops could be even rarer. He could be a totally new species of Triceratops — a first of his kind, said paleontologist Joe Sertich, fondly known around Greeley as Dr. Joe.

Sertich is currently working as a research assistant with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute based in Panama. In his former position with the Denver Museum, he is the one who examined Pops and recognized his runty size along with unusual traits in his snout and other facial bones.

“There is a whole other round of study that needs to be done on Pops,” said Sertich who admitted he is itching to get back to examine Pops more thoroughly and to make a trip to Alberta, Canada, to study the only known Eotriceratops skull for comparison.

What Sertich knows so far is that Pops is smaller and older than the average Triceratops. Pops didn’t just live 69 million years ago, he was old when he bit the dirt in what is now northern Colorado. Sertich was able to tell that from arthritic joints in his tail bone.

Pops was also more the size of a water buffalo rather than an African elephant which is how large most Triceratops were.

What Sertich can’t pin down is Pops’ gender.

About that, “flip a coin and you will have a 50% chance of guessing right,” Sertich said.

So, for the purposes of Weld County tradition and pronoun simplicity, Pops is going to remain Pops.  

Return delayed by detour to a Western Slope studio for reassembly

Pops was expected to be back home early last year, but that was delayed when the museum decided, with Weld County’s blessing, to pass him on to Robert Gaston, an unusual niche artist who could put some of his bits and pieces back together. At least three dozen of Pops’ bones, including ribs, his lower jaw and bits of his tail and neck frill, were discovered stashed and forgotten in boxes under his display case in Weld County when he was being packed up for the trip to Denver.

Gaston is internationally recognized as a fossil restorer. His Gaston Design Inc studio is located in a warren of sheds and outbuildings packed with dinosaur bits and pieces near his home in the middle of some of the state’s prime Western Slope fossil lands. There, five workers, including Gaston’s artist wife, Elisa Uribe-Gaston, toil over dinosaur pieces of every shape and size.

Elisa Uribe-Gaston makes repairs to a reproduction of a fossilized dinosaur skull. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sertich said he ranks Gaston at the top of only about four restorers around the country who do that very specialized work.

Gaston has been restoring, casting and molding some of this planet’s most ancient and unusual creatures for the past 25 years — since he discovered a previously unknown fossil outside Moab while working a summer job.

The pinheaded critter with teeth that worked like a hedge trimmer was named Gastonia after its discoverer. Gaston became something of a phenom in the paleontology world with that discovery even though his University of Tennessee degree is in sculpture, printmaking and photography. Finding Gastonia set Gaston on his unexpected and unusual career path and it landed Pops in his hands.

Much of Gaston’s work involves making molds and resin casts of fossils that he can then sell to museums and private collectors with a portion of those sales donated back to the entities that loaned the bones. This process allows Gaston to improve on the real fossils, which usually means “unsquashing” them. They have often been crushed from eons of pressure deep under sediment and rocks.

In Pops’ case, his head has been pressed like a paleo panini so it is thinner than it would have been when he was snuffling about northern Colorado for palms and ferns. One of his horns is mashed and twisted.  

Robert Gaston explains how Pops’ teeth would have fallen out and been replaced over time. The teeth were lined up in columns for better shredding of plant matter. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pops has already been cast in resin. The authentic-looking fake Pops skull leans against the table where the real Pops lies. In the future, Gaston will sculpt that cast of Pops so it will more resemble an unsquished version of Pops. He will cast more resin copies of Pops’ bones so that he can be easier studied and displayed. He also is planning for Pops’ resin skull to be part of one of his world-traveling exhibits called Bizarre Headgear. 

Unfolding fossils and their stories is Gaston’s speciality

Everything in Gaston Design is spattered with paints, resins and clay, including Gaston himself.

“To me, this is as close as you can come to time travel,” Gaston said as he waved a hand at the fossils baring their impressive teeth around his “office.” “It’s a kind of euphoria touching something that comes from the past.”

Even in Gaston’s jaw-dropping collection of every dinosaur imaginable — and some not so imaginable — Pops is something of a celebrity. Gaston touches Pops with reverence. 

Because the majority of his head is mostly intact, although looking “like it had been run through a Play-Doh roller,” in Gaston’s words, Pops is special. It’s unusual to find two-thirds of a skull as large and old as Pops’.  Most skulls are less than half intact because they are the most crushable part of a dinosaur skeleton, and a human’s for that matter.

Rob Gaston in his studio where he and his team restore and reproduce fossils and create mounting systems for museums and other places. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gaston likes to toss out car analogies for his work. These fossils are like automobiles that have been placed in a crusher. His job is to uncrumple the mess so it looks like a sedan again. He also likens it to car restoration.

“It can be boring detail work, but when it is all finished, it is exciting,” he said.

To continue in the auto/dino theme, Pops likely weighed nearly as much as a Dodge Ram. He was up to 20 feet long. He had three horns, stacked columns of teeth that fell out and regrew as needed, a parrot-like beak, and large armored plates covering his body. He had a “frill” — a sort of giant Dracula-type collar made of skin and bone that flared from behind his head. That frill was believed to be helpful in luring the ladies.

The frill overshadowed Pops’ little head, which is 66 inches long in its current stripped-bare bone iteration. Even though he was relatively a little guy, he was full-figured with a body resembling a bulldozer balanced on lizard-like front legs and rhinoceros-like rear legs. His head was tiny in comparison.  

Pops used that head for grazing. He was herbivorous. He ate plants, while it is believed that Tyrannosaurus rex could eat him.

Judging from the geological layer Pops was buried in, he and his kind likely went extinct 68 million to 69 million years ago. The bones of Triceratops were under earth that was sometimes as much as a mile thick — in Montana, Wyoming, southern Canada, South Dakota and Colorado.

The late Colorado legislator and Denver city councilman Roland “Sonny” Mapelli owned the land where Pops was found in 1982 by a University of Colorado paleontology student who went on to become a well-known paleontologist Kenneth Carpenter. Four years later, and after some legal wrangling over the bones’ ownership, Mapelli donated Pops to Weld County with the agreement that he would remain there and be on public display.

Until 2011, that meant being encased at the Centennial Building in downtown Greeley. When the county purchased a new building in North Greeley, Pops went there.

Mapelli would have never guessed back then that Pops would not only be on public display, he would become a “public figure.” That’s how he is listed on Facebook. He also has many hundreds of followers on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Jared Shaw makes reproductions of a fossilized dinosaur teeth sold as souvenirs at museum and national park gift shops. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

His fans around the world have rendered likenesses of him in crochet, in paints, in collages, in Halloween pumpkins, and in Lego. A Pops art contest held during his image-burnishing hiatus, brought in entries from as far away as Ecuador, South Korea and Argentina.

So, Pops’ homecoming is a big fossilized deal.

“There has been interest in this project from all over the world,” said Finch who took to social media this week to let Pops’ fans know he would be returning soon.

Pops will be moved to a more central location in the lobby of the Weld County offices rather than placed in his previous location between the restrooms and the human resources office.

“We thought he should be treated with a little more dignity,” Finch said.

A second display case will hold some of Pops’ other bones that previously had been hidden away in boxes. Pops’ old and dated display case will be kept in service as a repository for Pops memorabilia; statues, renderings, and tchotchkes that have been sent to Weld County over the years by Pops fans. Some of those now line a shelf in Finch’s office. Triceratops look down on her in the form of Christmas ornaments, salt and pepper shakers, plant holders, Pez candy dispensers and plastic wind-up toys.

If Pops is officially found to be an Eotriceratops — or something else — Finch said that won’t change Weld County’s love of Triceratops. The Triceratops was deemed through a commissioners’ decree to be the official fossil of Weld County back when Pops first went on display. That designation will remain.

All that’s left for now, before the party balloons come out, is for Gaston to mount Pops’ head on an artsy copper-colored display table he created especially for him. Pops will be encased in glass and loaded into Gaston’s heavy-duty van for the drive over the divide when there is a break in bad-weather roads.

After Pops arrives, there will  be speeches, a recognition of Sonny Mapelli’s family, an unveiling of a county-commissioned Triceratops work of art by famed Russian paleo artist Andrey Atuchin, a giveaway of Pops stick-on tattoos and Pops toys. And, finally, the whisking off of a cover over Pops’ gleaming new case.

It has been quite a journey for a 69-million-year-old fossil.

Sertich said it will end where it should, no matter how rare Pops turns out to be.

“I am a strong believer in bringing fossils back to the communities where they were found,” Sertich said. “It’s much better for Pops to be home.”

The Daily Sun-Up podcast | More episodes

Nancy Lofholm

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm