Sunday, 30 December 2012

2012 in Review

This week we are going to take a break from our A-Z of Dinosaurs from Alberta to do a quick review of this last year. We'll summarise a palaeontology-related story from each month of the year, with a focus on Alberta and dinosaurs. 

We start off the year with a non-dinosaur/non-Alberta find. In January, a very cool invertebrate fossil study was presented from the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. This strange flower-like animal called Siphusauctum lived on the bottom of the ocean more than 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian period [1]. It was likely a filter feeder, allowing its food to pass through openings in its tulip-like top, and catching it with comb-like elements. It attached to the ocean floor with a long stalk and holdfast, and was topped with a tulip-shaped calyx (cup-like structure). You can read more about this find here.
Siphusauctum (Copyright Marianne  Collins)

February brought us back to a cool dinosaur study from an Alberta researcher, Dr. Phil Bell, the palaeontologist for the future Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in northern Alberta. For the first time ever, Dr. Bell was able to determine that dinosaur skin can be used to tell the difference between species [2]. He found that dinosaur skin from the duck-billed dinosaur (AKA a hadrosaur) Saurolophus was different between Asian and North American specimens. He looked at fossils from southern Alberta and Mongolia and found that they had significant differences in their skin. Dinosaur skin had previously never been used as an identifiable feature in different species. Another very cool find from this study is that he was able to see how the scales changed in different regions of the body, and in some cases with interesting patterns. To learn more about this study, read this press release from the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. 

The month of March started with word of a cool fossil found in an ammolite mine near Lethbridge. Ammolite is a gemstone produced from the shells of ammonites, large marine fossils. Other marine animals have been found in this mine, including a large mosasaur skeleton dating back about 74 million years ago. It was apparently scavenged by some kind of shark with the body being dismantled and several teeth found with the skeleton. Mosasaurs were large, ferocious ocean predators during the Cretaceous period. This particular one was likely about 4 m long. We'll look forward to hearing more about this specimen in the future! You can check out a picture of this as it's being prepared on the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology's Facebook page.

April brings us two interesting Alberta-related palaeontology stories. First of all, well-known Canadian palaeontologist and specialist on Albertan dinosaurs Dr. Philip Currie was honoured for his passion with an Explorers Club Medal. Although actually awarded in March, most press articles on the subject came later when Dr. Currie was back in Edmonton. This prestigious medal is given for exceptional work and research in the physical, natural, and biological sciences. Previous winners of this award include Sir Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong, and Roy Chapman Andrews. Read more about the award here.
Another interesting dinosaur-related story from April comes courtesy of the Royal Canadian Mint when they announced a glow-in-the-dark quarter with an image of Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai on it. P. lakustai fossils are found in northern Alberta near Grande Prairie, in a large bonebed with thousands of bones. This image was designed by Julius Csotonyi, a well known palaeoartist. Unfortunately, they only produced a limited number of these coins, and have all been sold out! More on this story here.
Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai coin (Copyright Royal Canadian Mint)

Right at the beginning of May, we heard of a new marine reptile from Alberta, aptly named Albertonectes [3]. This new species was an elasmosaurid plesiosaur, which are known for their exceptionally long necks, and this animal was no exception. The total length comes in at about 11 m, and the majority of that is in fact its neck. This fossil is about 70 million years old and is a pretty neat find! For more information about Albertonectes and other elasmosaurs see this blog post.

The notable story for palaeontology in June is actually one that spans several months, with an important event occurring in June. In May 2012, a nearly complete Tarbosaurus skeleton went on auction at an American auction house. Few details were released on the fossil, but it did state that it was found in the Gobi Desert. This is a big problem because Tarbosaurus remains are found in large quantities in Mongolia, and more rarely in China, and that's it. Many palaeontologists got involved and interested in this case because Mongolia has very strict fossil laws, and it is illegal to export fossils from Mongolia, especially for private sales, meaning that this skeleton was removed from the country illegally. The sale went ahead, with the remarkable fossil going for nearly $1 million USD. Now we get to June. After this was brought up by several palaeontologists, and in fact the Mongolian president himself, two well known palaeontologists (including Dr. Philip Currie who has worked on numerous Mongolian fossils) inspected the fossil and concluded that it was in fact from Mongolia (they can tell from the colour of the bones and sediments found in the bones). Once this was determined, the American government took an unprecedented step and seized the skeleton from the auction house in June. Despite several attempts to get the fossil back, continue with the sale and plead innocence, the fossil dealer who had sold it to the auction house recently pleaded guilty to illegally importing this and several other skeletons from Mongolia and China, and is now faces 19 years in prison for his crimes. You might ask why this is such a big deal. Palaeontologists will tell you several reasons, but mainly because it encourages fossil poaching which results in specimens being broken, lost to science (they tend to go to private collections) and most importantly, they are removed from the surrounding rock which means a lot of valuable information is lost. For more information on this, there are several blog posts by palaeontologists and writers including Brian SwitekVictoria Arbour, and me (my personal blog) as well as several news articles! 

Unfortunately, July started with an story that did not have such a good ending. We heard the devastating story of a priceless, well preserved duck-billed dinosaur (hadrosaur) fossil being destroyed in near Grande Prairie. In June, the fossil was discovered by Dr. Phil Bell and some people from the University of Alberta. They were not able to remove the skeleton from the ground immediately, so they re-buried it, only to return a few weeks later to find it destroyed. Several bones had been taken, damaged or destroyed, with pieces scattered around the site. Because of the quality of this fossil, it had been slated as a possible major exhibit at the museum once it is built. However, the few bits that were left were barely salvageable, leaving Dr. Bell heartbroken. More on this from CBC here and here.
Image showing some destroyed bones (From CBC article, image by Phil Bell)

In August, a huge Triceratops skeleton was unearthed near Drumheller, not far from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which was a pretty convenient find for them! It took several days for them to take the 2000 kg animal out of the ground. The fossils were discovered by a former museum employee who recognised the bones after they were exposed due to erosion, and date back to about 65 million years ago. What's particularly exciting about this is that despite Triceratops being a well known dinosaur, its fossils are relatively uncommon in Alberta, in comparison to surrounding Montana and Saskatchewan fossils. More information can be found from CBC

Another marine reptile was found, this time near Grande Prairie by a 72 year old farmer. The 80 million year old plesiosaur was identified by Dr. Phil Bell who recognised the large vertebrae and knew instantly that they were not from dinosaurs. This particular plesiosaur was a smaller one, probably reaching only 2-3 m in length (compared to the long 11-12 m ones known). Many marine fossils can be found in Alberta from that time period because Alberta was covered by what was known as the Western Interior Seaway - a huge sea that went from northern Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. These fossils will eventually make a display at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, and may be a new species. 

October was a very exciting month for palaeontology in Alberta, as a new paper came out with the first ever undebatable occurrence of dinosaur feathers in North America, coming out of Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta [4]. This came a year after dinosaur feathers were reportedly found in amber from Alberta. These feathers, however, are unquestionably dinosaurian in nature as they came attached to dinosaur fossils. In fact three separate Ornithomimus skeletons showed these feathers, and the authors have interesting insights into the evolution of feathers. They found filaments in both juveniles and adults, but wing-like structures only in the adults. This suggests that these wing-like structures were only being used in some kind of reproductive behaviour like showing off to other individuals. This find is also the first ever find of feathers in course sandstone, rather than the fine-grained sediments typical of feather finds in China and Germany. More information on this can be found in CBC, but be wary of some mistakes in the article! These are not the oldest feathered dinosaurs ever found, as suggested. 

This month we had another new dinosaur named from Alberta, this time a ceratopsian or horned dinosaur. The new dinosaur is called Xenoceratops which literally means 'alien horned-face', in reference to its somewhat alien appearance for the time [5]. The bones had actually been collected over 50 years ago, but were previously left unstudied. This dinosaur is the oldest large horned dinosaur found so far in Canada, and shows that even the oldest ones had distinct horns and obvious morphological diversity. Xenoceratops would have weighed in at more than 2 tons, and reached a length of 6 m, making this a huge horned dinosaur. We just keep discovering new dinosaurs in Alberta all the time! For more information, check out the press release from the NRC Research Press here
Xenoceratops, Copyright of Julius Csotonyi
Right at the end of the year, we heard that the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, set to be located just west of Grande Prairie, got the last bit of money it needed to go ahead. This means that they can finally start breaking ground on the new dinosaur museum! They will start construction in the spring, and plan to be open to the public in the summer of 2014. Construction plans will start in January, and we're looking forward to seeing what the museum is going to look like. This new museum further cements Alberta's reputation as being an excellent place for palaeontology! More information can be found in their monthly newsletter here.

So that's our summer of palaeontology-related excitement from Alberta and the world in 2012. We at Jurassic Forest hope everyone had an excellent 2012, and has an even better 2013. We are looking forward to an excellent season beginning this April, and hope we can see you! Happy 2013 everyone!

1. O'Brien, LJ, and Caron, J-B. 2012. A new stalked filter-feeder from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale, British Columbia, Canada. Plos One 7: e29233. Open access, can be downloaded here.
2. Bell, PR. 2012. Standardized terminology and potential taxonomic utility for hadrosaurid skin impressions: a case study for Saurolophus from Canada and Mongolia. Plos One 7: e31295. Open access, can be downloaded here.
3. Kubo, T, et al. 2012. Albertonectes vanderveldei, a new elasmosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia) from the Upper Cretaceous of Alberta. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 32: 557-573. NOT open access, but can be found here.
4. Zelenitsky, DK., et al. 2012. Feathered non-avian dinosaurs from North America provide insight into wing origins. Science 338: 510-514. NOT open access, but can be found here.
5. Ryan, MJ., et al. 2012. A new ceratopsid from the Foremost Formation (middle Campanian) of Alberta. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 49: 1251-1262. Open access, can be downloaded here


  1. Hi Liz. A 20 metre Xenoceratops would be massive indeed!

  2. OOPS! Thanks for pointing that out Mark. That should have been 20 feet, not 20 m! I'll fix that now...