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New Alberta-region dinosaur digs
From: Ben Creisler email@example.com
News item from Edmonton Journal:
The Peace District is filling in a five-million-year gap
in the dinosaur map and could yield new species
Larry Johnsrude The Edmonton Journal
Tuesday, August 03, 2004
GRANDE PRAIRIE - Phil Currie is unravelling a 70-million-
year-old mystery buried in the sandy cliffs and rocky
riverbeds in northwestern Alberta's Peace District.
As a world-renowned dinosaur expert and curator of the
Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, he has examined
hundreds of thousands of dinosaur fossils from around the
world, from bone beds as rich and far away as China and
Yet he becomes visibly excited as he sifts through the
rocks and chunks of petrified bone lining the banks of the
Red Willow River, a tributary of the Wapiti about an
hour's drive southwest of Grande Prairie.
"This is a totally different ecosystem from a different
time period," he says, bubbling with boyish
enthusiasm. "If we are going to find new and different
species, this is the place."
His work is aimed at filling in a five-million-year gap in
Alberta's fossil record, a relatively unexplored time
period sandwiched between newer dinosaur fossils found
near Drumheller and older ones at Dinosaur Provincial Park
It is a brilliant summer morning when he and his team of
paleontologists arrive at a secluded section of the river
accessible only over a rough, winding private road through
This is prime fossil-hunting territory. With the river
making a sharp twist through a canyon of steep cliffs, its
rushing water erodes the soft riverbed and exposes
fossilized bone and footprints trapped in the rock for
The water is at least a metre lower than when he was there
a week ago, revealing the perfectly preserved three-toed
hadrosaur track indented in a slab of sandstone. The
shoreline is littered with smaller chunks of track and
bone, each a piece of the puzzle of what life was like
when these giant lizards ruled this part of the Earth.
To get an idea of how it all came about, Currie explains,
you have to imagine what the area looked like 70 to 75
million years ago. Start by taking away all the trees,
hills and rocks, and replace them with a mud flat
stretching for as far as the eye can see.
Then add an array of fierce meat-eating tyrannosaurs,
lumbering vegetarian hadrosaurs and fleet-footed raptors
playing out a drama for survival on the sandy delta, which
led to an inland sea that stretched from the Arctic Ocean
to the Gulf of Mexico during what is known as the
Cretaceous period of Earth's history.
As these enormous beasts died, some got washed down the
rivers and tributaries. Becoming trapped in shallow stream
beds, often piling up several deep, their bones were
covered with sand and silt, absorbing minerals and turning
into rock-like fossils.
"The conditions have to be perfect for the creation of
fossils," Currie says. "When you look at the abundance of
fossils along these river beds, it gives you an idea of
how many dinosaurs there must have been roaming this area
at any given time."
What makes these dinosaur fossils significant is they tell
a primordial story different from anywhere else. As the
inland sea shifted on its banks over the millennia,
Alberta's prime dinosaur locations near Brooks and
Drumheller were covered in water 70 to 75 million years
ago, leaving the Grande Prairie fossils as the only
prehistoric record from this time. It opens up the
possibility these are from different species, a
A 73-million-year-old duck-billed hadrosaur excavated a
year ago from a spot upstream on the Red Willow River,
Currie believes, is from a species different from the duck-
billed dinosaurs unearthed in southern Alberta.
He is on the lookout for evidence that the northern
velociraptors, a small bird-like raptor similar to those
in the movie Jurassic Park, are also different from those
in the south.
"We have found a piece of skull that looks different
enough to make us think it might be a new species," he
says. "But we need more than one bone to draw any
What would be his dream find? He grins and points to a
tyrannosaur femur bone sticking out of a pile of coal
shale. "If the whole skeleton was there," he replies.
That's hardly likely. His team was able to find only about
half the hadrosaur dug up last year. Skeletons are seldom
intact. Usually they're a collection of scattered bones,
requiring the expertise of paleontologists to figure out
how the pieces fit together.
The hunt for dinosaur bones in the Grande Prairie area has
its own challenges. The region may be as rich in bone beds
as Drumheller and Dinosaur Provincial Park, but they're
more difficult to reach.
While the fossils of southern Alberta's badlands are out
in the open, exposed by wind and rain, the Grande Prairie
variety are buried in secluded spots along river beds.
There are 14 identified fossil beds along the Wapiti and
its tributaries, some discovered by local settlers as
early as the 1920s. But shifting rivers, flooding and
slumping banks have turned the job of keeping track of
them into a game of hide and seek.
Darren Tanke, a technician with the Royal Tyrrell Museum,
discovered the hadrosaur skeleton dug up last year in
1989. But it disappeared under high water levels until the
river dropped a few years ago.
Despite the Indiana Jones-style romance associated with
fossil hunting, paleontologists say it's painstaking work.
Currie, 55, who has been fascinated by dinosaurs since
getting a plastic one in a cereal box when he was six
years old, spent three weeks this summer living in a
camper trailer parked in a farmer's yard while exploring
river beds. Tanke is spending most of the summer
prospecting. On average, it takes about 40 days of walking
to produce one new find.
There is one advantage to the remote location of the
Grande Prairie bone beds, says paleontologist Eva
Koppelhus, Currie's wife and research partner.
"It's far less likely that any of these fossils will show
up for sale on EBay," she says.
© The Edmonton Journal 2004