Bone hunters from around the world regularly travel to Dinosaur Provincial Park in the southern Alberta badlands — but the recent discovery of a hadrosaur fossil is causing a lot more excitement than usual.
Calgary-based biologist and dino-enthusiast Teri Kaskie was actually looking for Tyrannosaurus rex teeth when she made the discovery.
Kaskie volunteers in a field school at the park run by Professor Brian Pickles from the University of Reading. He and his colleagues bring students from the United Kingdom and Australia to learn and test field techniques in Alberta.
Kaskie came across a cliff and noticed a fossilized bone sticking out of it. Upon closer inspection, she realized it was larger and more intact than anything she had ever seen.
“I instantly went up to Brian and, like, you need to come to take a look at this! And as it turned out, it was something really cool,” Kaskie said.
What she found was a young hadrosaur so well preserved that it still had skin on it. Pickles knew it was a significant find and brought it to the attention of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alta.
Experts say hadrosaur skeletons are common in the area, but to find one as well preserved as Kaskie did is very rare.
“We took so many photos. We sent them to the Royal Tyrrell Museum staff [and said], ‘Hey, I think we found something really big here,'” said Pickles.
Skin on fossils ‘quite rare’
When it comes to dinosaurs, Alberta has a rich fossil heritage, according to Caleb Brown, curator of dinosaur systematics and evolution at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
“Dinosaur Provincial Park is kind of the crown jewel of that. There’s no other place in the world that has the same abundance of dinosaur fossils and the same diversity of dinosaur fossils in a very small area,” he added.
Hadrosaurs were herbivorous duck-billed dinosaurs, commonly referred to as the cows of the Cretaceous period.
According to Brown, around 400 to 500 dinosaur skeletons or skulls have been excavated from the area. So, finding dinosaur bones in the area is not hard. But finding one where all the bones are still in the same position they would be in life is uncommon.
“And finding one that has a lot of skin on it is quite rare.”
The fact that the animal was a juvenile also made it an exciting find, Brown added.
While bones are informative, people who work with dinosaur fossils say there is only so much that can be learnt from them. Skin on the other hand offers a unique window into understanding these animals from millions of years ago.
“When you find skin, or even better, internal organs, you can start to look at how these animals were when they were living and breathing,” Pickles said.
The skin allows paleontologists to learn more about the animals’ behaviour while they were living, partly by comparing the skin of different animals and other hadrosaurs at different life stages.
“I mean, it’s exciting. Every day we get to be out here but … this, it’s even more exciting,” said Brown.
Under the Historical Resources Act, fossils discovered in Alberta are property of the province. They cannot be sold and they must be designated for research.
What that means is this fossil will eventually make its way to the Royal Tyrrell Museum after it has been studied and analyzed. It will be a long time before that happens, though.
Crews are still working to remove rock and debris from around the hadrosaur before any scientific work can begin.
“We’ve been shifting the rubble to help clear it out and eventually we’ll be working on writing up some scientific papers about the discovery and what it tells us,” said Pickles.
“I plan to follow this dinosaur through until it’s a specimen on display in the Royal Tyrrell Museum.”
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