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Watch experts uncover Zuul, the new dinosaur going on display at the ROM in December

Experts at the Royal Ontario Museum and Research Casting International have spent more than a year uncovering a newly discovered species of dinosaur, named for its resemblance to a Ghostbusters villain. It goes on display in December.

Researchers found the new species, named after a Ghostbusters villain, in 2014

David Evans, paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, stands with a massive rock specimen containing Zuul, a new species of dinosaur debuting at the ROM in December. To his left, ankylosaur expert Victoria Arbour, and to his right, ROM paleo-artist Danielle Dufault. (David Evans/ROM)

It's hard to imagine any operation involving 4.5 tonnes of rock encasing an animal that's been dead for 76 million years as delicate. 

But that's exactly how a team of experts at Research Casting International (RCI) approached the pristinely preserved specimen of a newly discovered species of dinosaur on Tuesday — as they worked to slice, mount and flip the huge rock without damaging it, so they could continue preparing the other side of the fossil.

Staff at RCI 'blanketed' the top of the rock, which they'd already prepared, to protect it while they work on the other half. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

"It's really exciting," said Peter May, who founded RCI back in 1987. "In my career, I don't think anyone's ever flipped a block like this, this is probably a first, just because the block is so big."

All this happened just three months before the dinosaur, known as Zuul crurivastator, is expected to be put on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).

Fortunately, after a few hiccups, the flip succeeded.

Here's a sneak peak at the process, which took place on Tuesday.

Research Casting International Ltd (RCI) have cleared the rock and debris from the top of rock containing Zuul, a 76-million-year old dinosaur. To get to the other side of the rock, they had to cover and protect what they'd already prepared, carefully slice the rock in half, slide the bottom half out and then flip the top chunk over. 0:49

New species of dinosaur

Zuul crurivastator, an armoured dinosaur, or ankylosaur, was found in Havre, Montana in May 2014.

The scientists who discovered the fossil named it Zuul because they thought its head looked like that of the villain of the same name in Ghostbusters, the hit film released in 1984.

Danielle Dufault/Royal Ontario Museum/Ghostbusters Wiki (Danielle Dufault/Royal Ontario Museum, Ghostbusters Wiki)

The second part of the name means "destroyer of shins," because it has a powerful, sledgehammer-like tail with a large knob of bone at the end. Researchers believe Zuul used the tail to strike predators in the legs.

When it lived, Zuul would've been about 6.5 metres in length and would have weighed two to three tonnes, according to David Evans, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the ROM.

It was covered in armour plates to protect it from predators. It even had armour in its eyelids, according to Evans.

The Royal Ontario Museum acquired Zuul in 2016. (Danielle Dufault/Royal Ontario Museum)

Flipping a fossil

The team at RCI has already prepared the head and tail.

The shape of the ankylosaur's skull was how researchers determined it was a new species, and also that it resembled the villain from Ghostbusters. (Brian Boyle/Royal Ontario Museum)

This year, they cleared rock and debris from the top of what was originally a 16-tonne rock, revealing Zuul's body from the neck area to the hips.

To get to the other side, they decided to cover and protect what they'd already prepared, carefully slice the rock in half, slide the bottom half out and then flip the somewhat lighter top chunk over.

Matt Fair, production and plant manager at RCI, said they spent three months planning the flip.

"We've worked with something maybe half the size," he said. "The crane we knew is good, but because we're dealing with an organic shape and trying to make steel go through it and work the way we want it to, it doesn't always work."

Evans said near the end of the flip, his heart was beating a mile a minute.

David Evans, left, stands with Peter May as they look over the massive rock encasing Zuul. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

"It really is the moment of truth, whether you're going to have a perfect specimen at the end of the day or whether you're going to have rubble, and today it went as good as I think we ever could've expected it."

'Exceptionally rare'

With the flip complete, they can now start working on Zuul's opposite side.

They have high hopes for what they'll find, as they've already declared this dinosaur one of the most complete ever discovered, including its soft tissue.

"This much skin preservation over any dinosaur is exceptionally rare," Evans said. "We have skin that's covering a huge amount of this animal, and in that skin are the armour plates that really make ankylosaurs famous."

Researchers took this rubber mold of the first side of Zuul. You can see skin impressions, bumpy to touch. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

Evans said they can't quite tell how Zuul died, but they do know the dinosaur was buried very rapidly, which is how the skin was protected from decomposition and scavengers.

That layer of protection also produced some surprising finds in the bottom half of the giant rock.

"We found things like turtles and crocodiles, bits and pieces of duck bill and horn dinosaurs, but in that layer we also found an associated skeleton of the main predator of this armoured dinosaur, a tyrannosaur called Gorgosaurus," Evans said.

These surprises are why the original team who found Zuul took such a large rock specimen.

'Zuul: Life of an Armoured Dinosaur'

Zuul and its environment will be shown off in the ROM's exhibit, Zuul: Life of an Armoured Dinosaur, opening on Dec. 15.

In a release, the ROM said the exhibit will take visitors beyond the "museum walls to the badlands of Montana, in an immersive experience that recreates the Cretaceous world Zuul inhabited."

The exhibit will also include CGI animation, interactive games and, of course, a chance to see Zuul up close.

For Amelia Madill, one of RCI's bone preparators, that's not a lot of time to do her job.

Amelia Madill stands with an osteoderm, or bony plate, taken off of Zuul's stomach area. It was found embedded in the skin of the dinosaur. Her job is to remove rock from the fossil itself using small, mini-jackhammer-like tools. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

"It's going to take a lot of work, a lot of man power, but I think that's the most fun, right? You get to dig up something that's never been seen before and reveal it to the public." 

About the Author

Taylor Simmons

Associate Producer, CBC Toronto

Taylor Simmons works in all areas of the CBC Toronto newsroom, from writing for the website to producing TV and radio stories. Taylor grew up in Mississauga, Ont. and studied journalism at Western University. You can reach her at taylor.simmons@cbc.ca.