Hunting dinosaurs in the world’s best place for fossils
This post by Lynn Martel was originally published on the Travel Alberta blog.
It was night. I was in the Canadian Badlands. The nearest human was 65 feet away. And I was awoken by the sound of something big, snorting and shuffling right outside the nylon wall of my tent. You know when you are awoken by a strange creature in the middle of the night and your brain goes to the worst possible place? Yeah -- there was a dinosaur outside my tent.
I held my breath as the sound faded, and I satisfied my curiosity by mustering the courage to peek outside. There, I spotted, not a T-rex, but a moose and her calf disappearing through the bushes. Exhilarating, for sure. But not a dinosaur.
Forgive me for having dinos on my mind. Mamma moose happened upon me in the midst of an 18-person expedition to find dinosaur bones in one of the richest deposits of fossils in the world and, so far, I was coming up empty. On a trip filled with veteran fossil hunters and one of the most important minds in paleontology, I was a greenhorn looking for a needle in a haystack. In this minefield of pebbles and stones, what was a bone fragment and what was a plain old rock? As the expedition carried on and my colleagues kept emerging with fascinating fossil finds, it was starting to weigh on me: Would I ever find my dinosaur?
Flowing from the Rocky Mountains, Alberta's Red Deer River snakes through the Canadian Badlands, one of the world's great dinosaur fossil regions. Since the late 1800s, more than 1,000 complete skeletons of extinct dinosaurs have been found here. Surrounded by fertile farmland, the scorched mud hills earned their name because they are not arable and won't support buildings.
But the Badlands constitute a massive treasure chest oozing fossilized dinosaur bones regularly. Every year, wind and rain erode another centimetre of earth, and new fossils emerge.
Our expedition launched at McKenzie Crossing Campground, 43 miles east of Innisfail in central Alberta. Over two weeks we paddled 140 miles of gently flowing river, camping at 10 different sites. Along the way, we eagerly followed paleontology star Dr. Phil Currie, who is often called one of inspirations for the character in Jurassic Park and helped found Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum in nearby Drumheller. With 130,000 specimens and a half-million visitors a year, it's one of the world's top dinosaur museums. If that's not enough, Currie also has another museum named after him, the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum located near Grand Prairie in northern Alberta, next to the world's largest horned dinosaur bonebed. So, for a dino rookie like me, impressing Currie with my fossil hunting would be a tall order.
Things started with promise. Before our canoes were even loaded, some of my colleagues on the trip had found a large Hadrosaur femur, a tooth, and fragments of a duck-billed dinosaur. For the significant finds, Currie would drop them into plastic bags and carefully mark them with the location, date, and person who found them. "It's going to be like this the whole trip," one fossil-hunting veteran promised. "It'll just keep getting better."
Big and scrappy
Most of our group’s members were seasoned paddlers with previous dinosaur hunting experience. As a climber and skier from the Canadian Rockies, I was a beginner at both.
Pulling out at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, we hiked a rough trail to North America’s first major dinosaur dig site. It was here that iconic U.S. paleontologist Barnum Brown uncovered numerous bones from a large group of Albertosaurus in 1910. The apex predator of its time and a close relative of Tyrannosaurus rex (who lived a few million years later) Albertosaurus was big, up to 36 feet long.
In 1998, Currie reopened Brown’s site for excavation. Determining that the jumble of Albertosaurus bones of all ages had been caught in a sudden catastrophic burial, Currie’s work contributed significantly to global understanding of carnivorous dinosaur group behavior.
Spreading out, we began what would become a familiar ritual, walking slowly with our eyes scanning the clay-like surface that crumbled underfoot. The landscape was a minefield of pebbles, stones, iron-speckled rocks, and dry caked slopes with sage bushes growing horizontally from small crevices. Was that a bone fragment? Was that? How would I know if I saw anything?
Fossilized shark poop
Paddling past beaver houses, croaking frogs, and swimming muskrats with bald eagles and red-tailed hawks soaring overhead, we reached our campground. The next morning, we hiked across parched ground streaked with mud streams resembling mochaccino swirls. Nearly tripping over something, I stopped mid-stride. Was it a bone? Nope. A stick.
After watching Currie excavate a large tooth, I showed him my finds.
“That’s a rock,” he said, fingering my items. “That’s a piece of wood, but 70-million-year-old wood. That one is coprolite — fossilized shark poop.” As cool as it is to find fossilized sea excrement when the nearest ocean is 621 miles away, earning my way into one of Currie’s plastic bags felt even farther away.
Then, an expedition mate arrived to present a tooth bigger and longer than her thumb. Another scored a big prize: the skull of a ceratopsian, a frilled dinosaur with a horn. That night’s dinner was a celebration.
Teeming with wildlife
Paddling downriver we passed enormous cottonwood trees alive with songbirds. Three pelicans lumbered into the sky looking prehistoric, a testimony to birds being descended from dinosaurs, a theory that Currie was instrumental in developing. The Red Deer River valley is teeming with wildlife and birds; by trip’s end Rob, our skilled ornithologist counted 102 species.
At Steveville, we reached the northern boundary of the Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation. With permission to travel onto private land full of brown hills and a sea of otherworldly hoodoos, we visited the site of the find of the previous season: a Nodosaurid skull. It laid bare the paleontological richness of the Canadian Badlands.
Pitching our final camp at Dinosaur Provincial Park, we toured fascinating interpretive trails featuring glass cases displaying real-life dinosaur skeletons. We also explored areas only accessible on guided tours.
After two weeks of hunting, I'd found several bones that were easily identified as femora and ribs and vertebrae, some pieces of turtle shell and plenty of other scraps not whole enough to be helpful.
Our team, however, did well, finding pieces of Ankylosaur skull, crocodile scutes, duck-billed dinosaur toe bones, and at least 100 teeth. Day after day, Currie would drop them into those plastic bags and mark them. None of my finds had been worthy of a plastic bag.
"Sometimes you're lucky and sometimes it doesn't work out," said Eva Koppelhus, Currie's wife and fellow paleontologist at Edmonton's University of Alberta. I shrugged and walked across scorched ground that crunched underfoot like candied popcorn. That's it: Some days you find nothing, others are a jackpot.
Looking at the ground around my shoes, I bent down and sifted my fingers though a pile of dirt. Feeling something hard, I picked it up. It was crescent shaped and mottled brown and yellow. It was a tooth! Undeniably a tooth! Back at the campsite, I opened my hand in front of Currie. He looked at it nonchalantly. "That's a Tyrannosaur tooth," he said. Then, he took out a plastic bag, and dropped the tooth inside. I had done it. I had my dinosaur.
Want to hunt your own fossils?
Learn more about dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum.
Remember: Removing fossils from a park is illegal, as is entering private land without permission.