Monday, 3 September 2012

Palaeontology in Alberta

As most of you will already know, Alberta is a hotspot for palaeontology and fossils. This week, I'll be outlying a few of the places in Alberta that fossils can be found, as well as the kinds of fossils. Some of these I'm sure you will already be aware of, while some of them will come as quite a surprise! 


Of course, one of the most common group of fossils found in Alberta are dinosaurs. There are several localities in Alberta that have dinosaur fossils, and many different kinds of dinosaurs too. 

Dinosaur Provincial Park 

This is likely the most obvious place in Alberta to find dinosaur fossils. Dinosaur Provincial Park is located southwest of Drumheller, meaning that the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology is not actually located within the park. Dinosaur Prov. Park is where palaeontologists like Dr. Phil Currie go each summer to find new bones. Individual bones are found, as well as nearly complete skeletons, and even large bonebeds. For example, there is a large Styracosaurus bonebed found here that provides evidence that these large herbivores moved in herds, like modern herbivores. 
Styracosaurus, a common ceratopsian found in Dinosaur Provincial Park
The fossils in Dinosaur Provincial Park are from the Late Cretaceous, approximately 77-74 million years ago. There are three terrestrial rock formations within the park, with the Foremost Formation being the oldest, then the Oldman Formation, and finally the Dinosaur Park Formation, while the youngest formation is the Bearpaw Formation, which is marine, and therefore does not have dinosaurs. Now bear with me, because there are a lot of examples from these formations. Found in all three terrestrial formations are animals like mammals (Pediomys), turtles (Adocus, Aspideretes), and crocodile relatives (Champsosaurus, Leidyosuchus). Dinosaurs commonly found in both the Dinosaur Park Formation and Oldman include Centrosaurus, Corythosaurus, Gryposaurus, Stegoceras, Gorgosaurus, Dromaeosaurus, Saurornitholestes, and Troodon. Many dinosaurs are found solely in the Dinosaur Park Formation, like Styracosaurus, Lambeosaurus, Edmontonia, Daspletosaurus, and Ornithomimus. There are also amphibians, birds, marine reptiles, the only pterosaur remains in Alberta (Quetzalcoatlus) and many more found here. Also interesting is that dinosaur egg shells have been within these formations. The list goes on and on... this is truly one of the best places in the world for dinosaur fossils and fossils of this age. The Bearpaw formation will be discussed later, with respect to non-dinosaur sites. 
The badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, showing the high amounts of erosion that make it such a good place to find fossils. Photo from Wikimedia Commons user Scorpion0422).

Horseshoe Canyon Formation

The Horseshoe Canyon Formation has outcrops in many areas of the province, including many outcrops in and near Drumheller, along the Red Deer River valley, and even within the city of Edmonton. Dinosaurs found in this formation include Daspletosaurus, Ornithomimus, Saurornitholestes, Troodon, Ankylosaurus, Euoplocephalus, Saurolophus, Pachyrhinosaurus, and at more than one location within the city of Edmonton, Edmontosaurus and Albertosaurus. There are also amphibians, mammals, and crocodile relatives found here. 
Some visible bones from the Edmontosaurus bonebed in Edmonton. Photograph by the author.

Grande Prairie Region

Although the area of Grande Prairie is not as productive for fossils as southern Alberta, there are two Pachyrhinosaurus bonebeds that have produced many fossils, as well as fossils from Saurornitholestes, Troodon, and some hadrosaurs. More finds in recent years have lead to the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative, and more recently, the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, which will hopefully lead to a new dinosaur museum in northern Alberta. You may have heard about these areas in the news lately, because unfortunately, someone has been vandalising fossil sites in this region and destroying fossils destined for the new museum. 

Other Sites

Other areas in Alberta that have provided dinosaur fossils include Lundebreck Falls, where the famous T. rex skeleton 'Black Beauty' is from; Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, where an Albertosaurus bonebed was found; and Warner, Alberta, where 10 dinosaur eggs (possibly from Hypacrosaurus) were found. Another very interesting dinosaur found came from the Suncor Mine near Fort McMurray a few years ago, when a 3D preserved skeleton of an ankylosaur was found. This is especially interesting because these sediments are marine, suggesting the animal died, then was swept out to sea, where it was buried and preserved. 
Cast of 'Black Beauty' at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. Photo from Flickr user subarcticmike.

Non-Dinosaur Sites

Although I've mainly focused on places were dinosaurs have been found, Alberta is also home to many non-dinosaur fossils. For example, marine reptiles are often found in Alberta, such as Albertonectes, which was found near Lethbridge. Ammolite, which is the shiny remains of fossilised ammonites, is mined near Lethbridge as well. Although ammolite in itself is a fossil, marine reptiles can also be found here, and a mosasaur was found in the mine earlier this year. Marine reptiles can also be found in the oil sands and regions in northern Alberta. There are also isolated cases of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and more throughout the provinces, but it would take me forever to list them! 
Albertonectes fossil from Kubo et al. (2012). The neck is to the right (you can see it is broken), while the tail is to the left. 
References and links:
Kubo et al. (2012) Albertonectes vanderveldei, a new elasmosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia) from the Upper Cretaceous of Alberta. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32: 557-572.
Deep Alberta - A great book by John Acorn for anyone interested in dinosaurs in Alberta!

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