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We Went to a Dinosaur Dig in the Alberta Badlands

We visited the Alberta badlands to join University of Calgary palaeontologist Dr. Daria Zelenitsky on a dig for dinosaur bones.
August 26, 2014, 6:46pm

All images via author.
Drumheller is a scrappy old coal-mining town that hugs Alberta’s Red Deer River, situated in a parched valley peppered with dino kitsch. Cartoonish cement dinosaurs stand amidst a smattering of dive bars, motels, souvenir shops, and places with names like “Dinosaur RV Park” and “Jurassic Laser Tag & Arcade.” Right next to the visitor centre, there’s a fibreglass and steel T-Rex they call the “World’s Largest Dinosaur.” It’s about four times the size of the real thing, and you can pay $3 to climb some stairs to look out at the weatherbeaten town and surrounding badlands from its toothy mouth.

Out in those crumbling cliffs of grey, brown, and black sedimentary rock, I meet University of Calgary paleontologist Dr. Darla Zelenitsky and PhD student Kohei Tanaka. Hunched over a slab of sandstone perched halfway up a precipitous mudstone slope, they pick, scrape, and sweep around a large protruding jawbone with awls, brushes, hammers, and a generator-powered air scribe, applying glue as they go along to keep the porous bone from disintegrating. It’s part of a massive Edmontosaurus that the team is working to uncover.

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“The animal would have been roughly the size of the largest predators at the time,” Zelenitsky shouts over the whir of the generator. Petite and blonde, Zelenitsky punctuates her sentences with a disarming laugh. An expert on dinosaur eggs and embryos, she is also one of only a handful of women working in this male-dominated field.

Dr. Zelenitsky and Kohei at work.
This adult duck-billed dinosaur, she says, was probably between eight and nine metres long, and weighed between three to four tonnes. The species roamed in large herds, clipping vegetation with their sharp beaks, then grinding it to a pulp with thousands of teeth aligned in the back of their jaws.

“It’s going to take the rest of the summer to get it out,” Zelenitsky says of the metre-long skull. “It’ll be technically challenging because the sandstone is so hard, but the bones are very well-preserved, and no one’s found a skull like this in decades.”

71 million years ago, Drumheller stood near the western shore of the warm and shallow Bearpaw Sea, which once blanketed North America’s prairies. Sharks and gigantic marine reptiles dominated these waters, which were bordered by crocodile-infested swamps and densely forested floodplains. There were herds of hadrosaurs (like the Edmontosaurus) and horned ceratopsians (like the Triceratops), as well as packs of fearsome T-Rex esque Albertosaurs. Pterosaurs took to the skies, and our early rat-sized mammalian ancestors scurried underfoot. Dinosaurs aside, the area would have looked a lot like coastal Louisiana. Imagine it: sunny beaches, an hour-and-a-half east of Calgary. "It was a very different environment from the badlands of today,” Zelenitsky says, looking out at the moonscape of parched cliffs, deep coulees, and strange tower-like hoodoos.

Alberta’s badlands contain some of the richest dinosaur fossil sites on the continent—–if not the world. Hundreds of specimens have been unearthed in the province over the past century, including several incredibly rare ornithomimids with preserved feathers and a colossal parrot-meets-punk pachyrhinosaur skull Zelenitsky’s team found within the town of Drumheller last year (you can see a video of them excavating it here). Many of the province’s best fossils are on display just outside of Drumheller at the very impressive Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

In essence, the bands of colour that can be seen in Alberta’s badlands provide researchers with a cross-sectional view of millions of years of prehistory, showing how different areas changed over time. Generally speaking, darker coal layers are indicative of swamps, greyish mudstone represents areas in and around bodies of water, while yellowish-brown sandstone comes from prehistoric beaches and riverbeds. A dinosaur that died in water, sand, or mud stood a good chance of being buried, then preserved. The badlands’ eroding cliffs expose their graves.

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Outside of Drumheller, it’s not too hard to find bits of prehistoric wood, amber, and shattered orange-brown dinosaur bone scattered amidst rock, grass, and cacti. (Watch out for sinkholes and old mineshafts!) You can even find fossilized leaves. Intact skeletons, however, are much more difficult to come by, and clues of their existence can be almost imperceptible.

“Some people think that dinosaurs are found in soil, but actually they are preserved in ancient rock,” Zelenitsky says. “Almost nothing was exposed when my field assistant found this skull a few weeks ago. There was just a little bit of brown bone sticking out of a sandstone concretion. It was unidentifiable at first, so we excavated until we realized what it was.”

With the exception of a few power tools, paleontologists have essentially been using the same techniques to uncover dinosaur fossils since the late 19th century. The Edmontosaurusskull Zelenitsky is working on, for example, will have to come out in pieces. After the disarticulated bones are gingerly revealed with hand tools and the air scribe, they’ll be covered with plaster jackets to protect them for transport. Zelenitsky then plans to remove them in small blocks with the help of a rock saw before chiseling further into the cliff to see if other parts of the animal remain. Back in the lab, a technician will likely spend years using dental picks to scrape the hard sandstone from the bones to prepare them for study.

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“You have to be very patient to be a paleontologist,” Zelenitsky says. “Otherwise you run the risk of damaging the bones.”

With paleontologists, this patience seems to be borne from intense passion. Zelenitsky says that every paleontologist she’s met has been fascinated with dinosaurs since childhood. And she’s no exception. She tells me of collecting marine fossils as a kid in her native Manitoba and her obsession with Godzilla films.

Tanaka, her student, pipes in. His first movie, seen as an impressionable seven-year-old in the industrial heartland of Japan, was the 1993 classic Jurassic Park.

“I always dreamed of working with dinosaurs,” he says. “But I had to go abroad to study as there aren’t many dinosaur fossils in Japan!”

Zelenitsky was working on her Master’s with legendary Canadian paleontologist Philip Currie when the film came out.

“It was thrilling to see them animated,” she says of Spielberg’s CGI monsters.

Park created a surge of interest in paleontology, though most scientists will tell you that it should have been called Cretaceous Park (very few of the animals in the movie actually lived during the earlier Jurassic geological period). A fourth instalment in what sadly became a very shitty movie franchise will be coming out next summer in 3D, but, missing an opportunity to be on the vanguard of science, none of the dinosaurs in Jurassic World will be feathered.

The Edmontosaurus display inside the visitor's centre.
Since their initial discovery in northeastern China in the mid-1990s, feathered non-avian dinosaurs have revolutionized the field of paleontology. Many researchers now believe that most —ndash; if not all – dinosaurs had feathers (soft tissues like skin and feathers are rarely preserved), and that they evolved for purposes other than flight (such as courtship, insulation, and/or camouflage). That’s right. Those murderous packs of Velociraptors in JP (which were actually Utahraptors, because a Velociraptor would have only been slightly larger than a turkey) could have had brilliant multi-coloured macaw plumes the vision of which has actually been giving me terrible nightmares that mix the worst of Jurassic Park and Stephen King’s It.  “When you know that birds evolved from dinosaurs, it makes you look at them very differently,” Zelenitsky says. Such revelations have also sent more crazed creationists into overdrive. Some of her American colleagues, Zelenitsky says, actually receive harassing e-mails and telephone calls.

“That kind of thing doesn’t happen so much in Canada.”

Paleontology, Tanaka adds, can reveal how evolution actually works. It can also teach us about the effects of climate change.

“Climate change has always occurred, but it’s become much more rapid,” Zelenitsky says. “Paleontology can look at climate change in the past to make sense of its effects on plants and animals today.”

The chief culprit, of course, is CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. And we still have a lot to learn. n… On the prairies above this eroding badland valley, oil-rig pumpjacks bob like big drinking birds, thirstily sucking crude from the depths of prehistoric decay.  @dsotis