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Bones In The Badlands



The Royal Tyrrell Museum’s cast of a woolly mammoth.

In seconds the classroom in Red Deer, Alta., erupts into a loud and prolonged burst of “Ewwwww!” followed by a short, but audible, “That’s gross!” Tucked in between those expressions–and originating from somewhere near the back of the class–is a separate, calmer voice, declaring: “Cool!”

A hand-sized clump of fossilized dung–possibly dino dung–is what the students at St. Patrick’s Community School are reacting to on this sunny day in March 2007. What’s also interesting is that the fossil and the students are not even in the same city, let alone the same room. They are more than a hundred kilometres apart, because the dung is sitting on a table inside the ATCO Tyrrell Learning Centre at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, way down in Drumheller.

The program that’s being teleconferenced to the students is called Up Close and Paleo, and it originates from the centre’s studio which is decked out with thousands of dollars worth of equipment, including a large chroma-key or “green screen” backdrop–the kind television studios use to insert electronic images over their newscasts.

The show’s host is Kevin Flesher who is leaning to Dr. Dave Eberth for expert commentary on the dung and many other ancient objects, including a large serrated tooth, discovered mostly among the rocky outcrops of Alberta’s famous badlands.

Using layer-by-layer comparisons of rocks and fossils, Eberth has made it his life’s work to interpret how landscapes and climates have changed over millions of years. His work and the work of several other scientists and curators has brought international recognition to the museum. In fact, the Royal Tyrrell is the only museum in Canada devoted entirely to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting fossils and the environments they come from. When Eberth is not here, he and other museum staff could be off in some other corner of the planet hunting bones or other fossils, all with the view of increasing the knowledge people have of life’s 3.9-billion-year-old history on Earth.

“Yes, what you are looking at is actually some fossilized, chemically replaced feces from an animal,” he explains. “And here is the trick. We don’t really know what animal deposited this. We do know it is a vertebrate–an animal with a backbone. We also know it was a large animal because of the size of the mass. But it could have been a crocodile or it could have been a dinosaur. We don’t really know.”

A little earlier during the program, Eberth defined paleontology “as the study of ancient life. And when we say ancient life, we are not talking about your parents. We’re talking about things that are older than 10,000 years….”

The curator of sedimentary geology explains that in order to discover what animal left the poop he would have to work the locality it was found in. “We would have to go out into the field, find the bone bed…find where it came from, and then we would look for other fossils–associated fossils–and then we would make our best guess. The other thing we can do is take thin sections, put it under a scanning electron microscope and try to identify if there is any material in the feces.”

If investigating the origins of ancient dung doesn’t quite grab you, then there may be other aspects to the museum that will. Set into the barren and strikingly eroded tracts of land along the Red Deer River in southern Alberta, the museum has taken a design cue from the surrounding landscape. Driving from the wide open and rolling prairies into the narrow and confining gullies of the badlands is an adventure by itself. First, the tabletop grasslands just seem to vanish behind you as you wind your way down past steep slopes of layered sedimentary rocks. It’s hard not to imagine going back in time.

And if the drive doesn’t put you in the right frame of mind, you may want to take a stroll through the new entrance to the museum’s galleries. Titled Cretaceous Alberta, it represents a major part of the museum’s latest efforts to stay fresh–with a definite flair for the dramatic. It’s a lot more engaging than what used to sit at the entrance. “The previous entrance featured a giant globe, and visitors were told about early life on Earth…. It was very informative, but it was decided that it was time to spike things up, and so we did,” explains Brandy Calvert of the museum’s marketing department. “People are amazed at how suddenly they feel transported back through time.”

After entering Cretaceous Alberta off the museum’s foyer, visitors are introduced to the sights and sounds of a steamy forest, hugging both sides of a river. The scene is a re-creation of what the geography looked like around Alberta’s Dry Island Buffalo Jump about 70 million years ago or during the late Cretaceous Period. Back then the area was a coastal plain with an ancient narrow sea–the Bearpaw Sea–running up the middle of the continent from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.

Officials use museum-speak to describe the walk-through diarama as an “immersive environment”–and it definitely is, especially if you’re willing to play along. There are sounds of birds, crickets and frogs, as well as the deep rumblings of something very, very big just out beyond the ferns and evergreen trees. That, however, is not what some visitors have described as “the really scary part.” Towering above you and slightly to your left–and a little further ahead to your right–are lifelike sculptures of an adult and two subadult Albertosaurs, known as the province’s “signature dinosaur.” The one with its mouth open looks like it could bite a Mini Cooper in two. Huddled beneath the matriarch is an offspring or juvenile, looking no less ferocious–thanks to its gleaming eyes and very pointy baby teeth. These creations–by Calgary’s Brian Cooley–turned a lot of heads and stopped a lot of traffic when they were transported on two flatbed trucks to the museum.

Overall, the Royal Tyrrell is spending approximately a million dollars on exhibit renewal this year, says Assistant Director Jason Martin. “Our theory is rather than bring in a lot of travelling exhibits, and pay money to do that we want to constantly renew and invest in our permanent galleries, and so with redoing a third of the galleries this year–the material and exhibits we are presenting will be very fresh, and that is important because we have a lot of repeat visitation.”

Assistant Director Kathryn Valentine ranks Cretaceous Alberta as the museum’s most ambitious current project. “When you combine the price of the sculptures, the environment, the backdrop, sound system and lighting it will have a price tag of approximately $850,000.” She says the museum’s most expensive gallery to date is the Burgess Shale gallery which focuses on the famous layer of rock found high in the Canadian Rockies–considered to be one of the most important fossil locations ever discovered. Completed in 1998, the exhibit cost more than a million dollars.

The investment in renewal has helped the museum maintain and surpass annual visitation totals of around 400,000. In March, it was well on its way to receiving 365,000 visitors for the 2006-07 fiscal year. The stats for April 1, 2005, through to March 31, 2006, show 2.6 per cent or 8,687 visitors came from Drumheller, while 30.77 per cent or 67,386 came from Calgary. The number of people visiting from Edmonton for the same period was 28,936. All other provincewide visitation amounted to 71,584 or more than 21 per cent of the total. The number of visitors from other provinces was 102,322, and visitation from the U.S. weighed in at 13,086.

The provincially run museum has an annual operating budget of $3.2 million, not including government staff salaries or capital exhibit improvement. Two fifths of the funding comes from the province while the other three fifths is earned through admissions, sponsorships and program fees.

Young Noah Bablitz of Calgary is glad the museum is committed to renewal. He was certainly impressed when he walked through Cretaceous Alberta last March–just as the finishing touches were being made. The home-schooled lad took a good long look, then summarized his experience. “It feels like there is actually an Albertosaurus right beside you, and because of the sound effects it feels like there is another Albertosaurus and a Triceratops right around there, too. It was really amazing.”

Dry Island Buffalo Jump–located less than an hour’s drive north of Drumheller–is famous for ancient bones. To date, the bone bed has yielded 22 Albertosaurs, as well as plenty of other fossils, including the remnants of ancient fish and vegetation. In fact, so much has been found there that it has helped support the well-accepted theory that it was a meteorite–striking the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous Period some 65 million years ago–that led to the extinction of dinosaurs.

Evidence of this is found sandwiched in a coal seam about 50 kilometres north of the museum where there’s a thin layer of iridium-rich claystone. The layer is part of what’s called the Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary, and scientists believe the claystone was deposited after the extraterrestrial impact. Below the boundary are the remains of the dinosaurs and the many other creatures that lived and died with them.

First discovered in 1910 by bone hunter Barnum Brown, the location of the Albertosaurs bone bed was lost over time–quite understandable because back then nobody had anything as fancy as GPS, and so if the location wasn’t carefully marked and noted, chances of finding it again would be difficult in any landscape. The spot was relocated by the museum’s Dr. Philip Currie in 1990 when a team of scientists–using old photographic evidence and field notes–rafted down the Red Deer River, searching the landscape and comparing it to the old photos.

An even hotter area of discovery is in what is now Dinosaur Provincial Park, near Brooks, Alta. Thousands of dinosaur skeletons, and hundreds of thousands of individual bones have been found there. It is also where the best-preserved and most nearly complete Albertosaurus skeleton was located. All it lacks is the left arm, some toe bones and a few ribs. The animal was also found in what paleontologists call the “death pose”–with its head flung back over its spine. They believe the dramatic pose was caused when the animal’s ligaments dried out, and forced the neck and tail muscles to contract. Back in March, the skull had been sent away for a CT scan.

Among the other museum treasures is a Tyrannosaurus rex skull known as Black Beauty. Discovered in 1980 by a couple of kids out fishing in southwestern Alberta, it gets its nickname from its distinctive dark colouring. In late March, technician Mark Mitchell was busy working on Black Beauty’s lower jaw. He and other technicians use a variety of tools–from scalpels, toothbrushes and dental picks to the heavier equipment that’s employed in the field, including pick axes and jackhammers. While some bones can be recovered fairly quickly, others can take months or even years to collect.

When a specimen has been found, it is dug up along with any rock attached to it. And before it is transported to the museum, the fossil and rock are wrapped in burlap and dental plaster, known as a field jacket. The massive storage vault behind the museum’s prep lab is an obvious indication of how busy the bone hunters have been. It looks like something out of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are more than 200,000 preserved and catalogued specimens, ranging from toes and teeth to massive rib cages and spinal columns. And every year, another 20,000 specimens arrive.

Asked if there’s a Holy Grail of dinosaurs out there, the museum’s curator of dinosaurs, Dr. Donald Henderson says finding a juvenile Tyranosoriod would be amazing. “We never find eggs or babies of these things. We’ve got juveniles of the plant-eating dinosaurs, but no T-rex, Daspletosaurus or Albertosaurus. It’s a mystery. They must not have had their nests or breeding areas in the low-lying wet areas. They must have had them on higher ground, where more material is simply lost to erosion.”

When Henderson and the others go prospecting during the summer months they are on the look out for anything–whether it’s a turtle, crocodile or a dinosaur. “But,” he adds, “you’re always looking for that favourite thing.”

Henderson says scientists are discovering a wider range of smaller dinosaurs. “It used to be that everybody thought dinosaurs were just big, but now that we are collecting more and more, we are realizing that we’ve missed many of the smaller things. This tells us that their population–their diversity structure–wasn’t as peculiar as it was thought to be a hundred years ago.”

Before explaining why Alberta is so blessed when it comes to dino bones, it would be useful to note a little bit about the man whose name is on the museum: Geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell. In 1884, while surveying coal deposits between the Bow and North Saskatchewan rivers for the Geological Survey of Canada, Tyrrell discovered a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skull, which in 1905 was given the name Albertosaurus by the American Museum of Natural History.

It took several more years, however, for Canadian and American bone hunters to show up in droves–part of what would become known as the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush. The pace today–here and elsewhere in the world–remains quick, mostly because of what scientists have learned and the amazing number of discoveries. Newer technologies, including CT scans which allow scientists to peer inside fossils, and computers that can be used to generate biomechanical models–useful in understanding how dinosaurs moved and how fast they moved–have greatly advanced the study. It has also become a lot easier to find and date fossils.

So why is this part of Alberta so bone rich? Henderson says it’s a combination of factors. First, ancient Alberta was located on the western shores of that inland sea noted above. Flowing from west to east, the rivers deposited layer after layer of sediment. Today’s climate–with its hot, dry summers and flash rains–is aiding the erosion. There is also very little vegetation to stabilize the ground. When wind and thunderstorms whip through the landscape, they cut it down, and bones become visible. “It is thought that in Dinosaur Provincial Park about a centimetre a year is lost over the whole area,” says Henderson. “That alone makes it a good area to search in.”

“There is a whole ecosystem preserved out here,” adds Prep Lab Supervisor Jim McCabe. “There is not anything quite like it anywhere in the world. The other thing about it is that the rocks in Alberta represent a slice through time right at the end of the age of the dinosaurs, and so they give real insight into all the factors related to the extinction, and how the climate and the ecosystems and the flora and fauna were changing over that critical period of time.”

In addition to its research facilities, galleries and distance learning centre, the museum is well-known for its educational programs; everything from its Edutour program–a two-day field trip for Grades 2 to 12 that includes a sleepover underneath the dinosaurs in Dinosaur Hall–to summertime fossil casting and hikes through the badlands. A program called Excavate It!, which runs from June 23 to Aug. 31, is designed for people ages 10 and older. Participants are part of a team, using the tools and techniques of paleontology.

With so many bones out there, finding one isn’t that difficult, although it does help to have a trained eye. But with a little bit of practice people can see the differences between a rock and a fossil. The thing to remember though is that it’s not finder’s keepers because by law the bones–even the dung–belong to the province–and to history, of course.

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