Boreal Dinosaurs Coming to the Surface

Friday, August 10, 2018

You don’t have to go too far outside of Grande Prairie to feel like you’re in an untouched wilderness. Down in the river valleys, past the quad trails and hiking paths, it’s a jumble of dense bush and eroding hillsides that await you. Fallen logs trip you up, dirt footrests collapse beneath you, and hills seem to grow higher and steeper as you climb them. And that’s all before you even start digging. These are some of the challenges faced by the intrepid people of the Boreal Alberta Dinosaur Project. A joint effort between paleontologists from universities and museums both international and from right here in northern Alberta, the Boreal Alberta Dinosaur Project aims to learn more about the Peace Region’s dinosaurs and other extinct creatures. Recently, they were also gracious enough to take the museum’s education staff, including myself, out for a few days of fieldwork in some pretty rustic but very important paleontology sites out in the local countryside.

Of all our fossil locations, the most famous one is, naturally, the Pipestone Creek Pachyrhinosaurus bonebed. This site is, of course, important and worth visiting for anyone with an interest in dinosaurs. But the Pipestone bonebed is far from the only dinosaur graveyard in the Grande Prairie area. Several other quarries, far less accessible and more mysterious, are known to paleontologists interested in the region’s dinosaurs. There’s a lot of fossils out there waiting to be collected and scientifically described, probably more than most people realize.

While we’re well-known for our horned dinosaur bonebeds in this neck of the woods, there’s actually a handful of duck-billed dinosaur sites being worked on too. These range from collections of sub-adults to potentially fully grown giants. As of this writing, the only duck-billed dinosaur confidently known from the Grande Prairie area is Edmontosaurus, an abundant species also known from localities in the heart of Edmonton and the badlands near Drumheller. While the bones of duckbills are fairly abundant, most species look pretty darn similar from the neck down, so skulls are needed so we can discern what’s what. Skulls are much harder to come by than most other bones, but duckbills often have big, elaborate crests on their heads that make it easy to tell which species you have, as long as you have the skull. It could even be that there’s duckbill species new to science up here, so keep an eye on the paleontology news over the next few years!

Some quarries hidden deep in the river valleys also preserve samples of a whole diverse paleo-ecosystem, contrary to most other bonebeds which are very abundant in only one type of dinosaur. Everything from fossil leaves and seeds to small aquatic reptiles to unknown species of dinosaur can be found here. This tells paleontologists a lot about what the environment of the Grande Prairie area 73 million years ago was like. At this time we would be in the middle of lush woodland cut by swampy rivers that were struck with seasonal floods. It was probably cool and frosty in the winter and hot and humid in the summer. The animals that inhabited this ecosystem belonged to the same families that occur better-studied rocks from southern Alberta, ranging from smaller creatures like turtles and crocodiles to Alberta’s classic dinosaur faunal groups. But these higher-diversity bonebeds also seem to be hinting that there’s undescribed species here unique to the Wapiti Formation of Alberta’s northwest.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been pretty vague about where exactly these other fossil sites in the area are located, and specifically what bones have been collected from them. There’s a good reason for this- fossil poaching, a problem that affects paleontologists around the world. Announcing the exact locations of poorly-understood fossil sites could open the gates for people who would collect the bones for themselves, keeping scientifically crucial fossils out of the reach of paleontologists. However, this isn’t to say that the general public can’t be involved in helping in the search for new dinosaurs. Many of the best fossil sites in the Grande Prairie area were discovered by amateurs who did the right thing and brought their discovery to the attention of paleontologists, who are always happy to hear about new exciting places to dig. So watch out for giant bones on your next canoe trip- we’re only just starting to scratch the surface of what’s up here.

Don’t forget to come out on a tour of the Pipestone Creek bonebed while there’s still some summer left! Plus, our yearly Night for the Museum fundraiser is coming up, so consider supporting your dinosaur museum!