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New Alberta-region dinosaur digs



From: Ben Creisler bh480@scn.org

News item from Edmonton Journal:
http://www.canada.com/edmonton/edmontonjournal/news/story.h
tml?id=3a1923ad-ad49-4d2a-b92f-7305bf2beae8

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 
Mongolia.
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 
near Brooks.
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 
a forest.
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 
centuries.
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 
paleontologist's dream.
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 
conclusions."
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.
ljohnsrude@thejournal.canwest.com
© The Edmonton Journal 2004