As a child, Harrison Duran would visit the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, captivated by the fossils preserved in asphalt. Now 23, Duran is responsible for his own fossil discovery: the 65-million-year-old partial skull of a triceratops.
In June, the University of California, Merced student participated in a paleontology dig with Michael Kjelland, a biology professor at Mayville State University of North Dakota. The two met at a conference and began a mentor-mentee relationship – now, Duran is an intern at Kjelland's nonprofit group, Fossil Excavators.
Duran's account isn't too far off from the action-movie plot the name Fossil Excavators evokes.
"I'm just feeling absolute – it's almost like disbelief at first, but absolute just joy, excitement and it's a very fulfilling feeling," Duran tells NPR, about the moment the team made the find. "It's almost like a spiritual moment in a way because I've been so passionate about this topic."
After finding leaf fossils embedded in sandstone, the excavators continued forward and noticed the triceratops horn sticking out above the ground.
The dinosaur skull, which Kjelland and Duran named Alice, will be prepared for display after the specimen is solidified. Duran plans to have a mold exhibited at his school, where he is entering the fifth year of a 4+1 program in biology.
Duran's dinosaur passion is prehistoric. He can't remember the moment he first became infatuated.
"Since I was an infant I've always been so fascinated with a bunch of titans of these lost worlds," Duran says.
As a freshman biology student, he took a course on the History of Dinosaurs with Justin Yeakel.
"He was just one of the most curious students in the class," Yeakel says. "He probably knew about as much as I did about dinosaurs and would always ask really good questions."
Duran plans to continue on with his biology degree and keep going on expeditions with his fossil-hunting mentor Kjelland. He hopes that the 65-million-year-old skull will stimulate interest in the land before time and the world of nature.
"I just want to say that our mission is for public education," Duran says. "Our mission is to make sure that the public can become inspired and re-engaged in paleoecology, paleontology or just conservation."
Josh Axelrod is the NPR Digital Content intern.