Palaeon­tol­o­gists make ex­cit­ing dis­cov­er­ies in south­west Saskatchew­an

Prairie Post (East Edition) - - Eastend - BY MATTHEW LIEBEN­BERG— mlieben­[email protected]­t.com

Palaeon­to­log­i­cal field­work­ers have un­earthed some ex­cit­ing dis­cov­er­ies in south­west Saskatchew­an dur­ing the sum­mer.

Dr. Emily Bam­forth, a Royal Saskatchew­an Mu­seum palaeon­tol­o­gist and cu­ra­to­rial as­sis­tant at the T.rex Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre in Eas­tend, has been work­ing at a num­ber of sites in the re­gion dur­ing the past few months.

“It's been a re­ally fan­tas­tic sum­mer,” she said. “We found a lot of re­ally neat things and a lot of very dif­fer­ent things too. So def­i­nitely we're com­ing away from this field sea­son feel­ing great about what we have to work on in the win­ter and also what we have to look for­ward to next sum­mer as well.”

She is most ex­cited about find­ing the skull of an Ed­mon­tosaurus, which is a duck-billed di­nosaur, at a site near Shau­navon.

“It's only the sec­ond skull of this di­nosaur that's ever been found in Saskatchew­an,” she said. “The first one was found back in the 1920s. So it's been al­most 100 years since we found the skull of this an­i­mal in this prov­ince and it was just a thrill to found this in the field.”

The plant-eat­ing Ed­mon­tosaurus lived just be­fore the ex­tinc­tion of di­nosaurs and the skull is there­fore about 66 mil­lion years old. It roamed the Earth the same time as two other large di­nosaurs, the her­biv­o­rous Tricer­atops and the car­niv­o­rous Tyran­nosaurus rex.

“We find a lot of their ex­ploded bones, ba­si­cally bits and pieces here and there, their limb bones, their ver­te­bra, their ribs, but it's very un­usual to find a skull,” she said about the Ed­mon­tosaurus dis­cov­ery. “That's what got us re­ally ex­cited. We knew that they were rel­a­tively abun­dant. So to find a skull to be able to tell us more about the species and about how the an­i­mal grew, the age of the an­i­mal, things like that, was very ex­cit­ing.”

There might be even more bones from this di­nosaur at the site where it was dis­cov­ered, but ad­di­tional field­work will have to be done to un­cover them.

“We col­lected the skull and the other part of the skull we call the cra­nium and one of the up­per jaws,” she said. “That was all we col­lected for this time, but it's likely that if we push the hill back there's go­ing to be more there. That's def­i­nitely on the agenda for next sum­mer.”

Field­work at an­other site near Eas­tend un­cov­ered a mam­mal fos­sil of an an­i­mal that lived af­ter the ex­tinc­tion of the di­nosaurs. Bron­totheres were large rhino-like an­i­mals that were sim­i­lar in size to a mod­ern ele­phant.

This fos­sil is about 38 mil­lion years old and was dis­cov­ered on a site where Royal Saskatchew­an Mu­seum palaeon­tol­o­gists have been work­ing on and off for more than three decades.

“This sum­mer we ac­tu­ally came across a com­plete or a rel­a­tively com­plete skele­ton of a ju­ve­nile an­i­mal, so sort of a teenager bron­tothere,” she said. “We al­ways get re­ally ex­cited when­ever we find ju­ve­nile an­i­mals, be­cause they're rare in the fos­sil record, gen­er­ally speak­ing.”

The skele­ton of a ju­ve­nile an­i­mal can help sci­en­tists to de­velop a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of their growth and of the changes that took place dur­ing their de­vel­op­ment and age­ing.

“The other neat thing about this story is that we be­lieve that bron­totheres were mi­gra­tory,” she said. “They were mov­ing, just like a lot of an­i­mals to­day, north in the sum­mer and south in the win­ter, and the ju­ve­nile ma­te­rial we have is all about the same age. So we think these an­i­mals were mi­grat­ing through this area at the same time of year and then they ba­si­cally fell into this fast flow­ing river and some of them would drown and be de­posited, and that's why we found this as­sem­blage of bones.”

The land­scape in south­west Saskatchew­an looked a lot dif­fer­ent 38 mil­lion years ago dur­ing a ge­o­log­i­cal epoch known as the Late Eocene. It was much warmer with a cli­mate sim­i­lar to what one will ex­pe­ri­ence to­day dur­ing a visit to the Mis­sis­sippi River Delta re­gion. There were fast flow­ing rivers and the lush veg­e­ta­tion was per­fect for bron­totheres, which were the largest her­bi­vores at that time.

An­other in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­ery took place in Grass­lands Na­tional Park in Au­gust dur­ing Fos­sil Fever, the park's an­nual pub­lic pro­gram that pro­vides mem­bers of the pub­lic an op­por­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in palaeon­to­log­i­cal field­work. Dur­ing the ex­ca­va­tion the horn core of a young Tricer­atops was found, which is about 66 mil­lion years old.

“So again, we got ex­cited when we found ba­bies or ju­ve­niles in the fos­sil record,” she said. “Of all the Tricer­atops we've ever found in Saskatchew­an, this is prob­a­bly the third youngest in­di­vid­ual.”

Field­work­ers found a hand­ful of Anky­losaurus teeth, which are about 74 mil­lion years old, when they vis­ited a site in the Con­sul area. A dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of these plant-eat­ing di­nosaurs is the bony ar­mour over their bod­ies. Fos­sils were pre­vi­ously col­lected at this site about 30 years ago.

“It's what we call a ver­te­brate mi­crosite,” she said. “It's a site that has a lot of re­ally small fos­sils in it, so fish scales and lizard ver­te­brae, mam­mal teeth and things like that, re­ally cen­time­tre scale fos­sils.”

It is very rare to find any Anky­losaurus ma­te­rial in Saskatchew­an, which made this an im­por­tant dis­cov­ery.

“One of the ques­tions that we're look­ing at is why Anky­losaurus are so rare in Saskatchew­an, be­cause we don't find any of their bones,” she said. “We don't find the big tail clubs, we don't find the spikes, we don't even find the limb bones or the ribs. ... We know they lived in Al­berta, where they're rel­a­tively com­mon, and they lived down south in the States around the same time pe­riod. We think it's some­thing bi­o­log­i­cal that was ex­clud­ing them from this area, but we're not sure yet what it is. So that's one of the re­search ques­tions we're look­ing at.”

Dr. Bam­forth also stud­ies fos­sil leaves and their re­la­tion­ship to pa­le­o­cli­mate. An­other im­por­tant find this sum­mer was beau­ti­fully pre­served fos­sil leaves at a site in Grass­lands Na­tional Park.

“They look like they fell off the tree yes­ter­day, even though they're 65-66 mil­lion years old,” she said. “They're re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant for un­der­stand­ing an­cient life, be­cause they're a very im­por­tant source of pa­le­o­cli­mate in­for­ma­tion.”

A fos­sil leaf as­sem­blage can pro­vide sci­en­tists with in­for­ma­tion about how warm or wet it was, or how dark it was in the win­ter or how much light there was in the sum­mer.

“So we were re­ally ex­cited to find this par­tic­u­lar site,” she said. “It's about a me­tre and a half above the ex­tinc­tion layer of the di­nosaurs. It tells us a lot about what the world was like right af­ter that ex­tinc­tion and also how fast the plant life re­cov­ered af­ter that ex­tinc­tion event.”

The fos­sil leaves are not easy to un­earth and on av­er­age they only find one new fos­sil plant site ev­ery year.

“They don't con­ve­niently weather out of the ground the way the di­nosaur fos­sils do,” she ex­plained. “You ac­tu­ally have to dig for leaf fos­sils. They're very frag­ile and as soon as they're ex­posed to the air, they fall apart. So you have to ac­tu­ally knock of big blocks of rock to ac­tu­ally see if there are plants in there.”

Dur­ing the col­lec­tion process they will use an aerosol spray to con­sol­i­date the leaf fos­sils and they are then care­fully packed in tis­sue pa­per.

“We have to keep them un­der con­trolled con­di­tions in the lab so they don't dry out and start crack­ing,” she said.

“So they're a lit­tle bit more dif­fi­cult to col­lect and to pre­serve than the ver­te­brate fos­sils, but a re­ally im­por­tant source of in­for­ma­tion. So we like col­lect­ing plants.”

Field­work was done along the South Saskatchew­an River, where am­monites and ma­rine clams were col­lected from the Cre­ta­ceous Bearpaw For­ma­tion. This ge­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tion oc­curred be­tween 74 and 72 mil­lion years ago, when Saskatchew­an was cov­ered with a shal­low sea.

“It was a sea that ac­tu­ally cov­ered North Amer­ica from the Arc­tic Cir­cle to the Gulf of Mex­ico, and it was warm and shal­low,” she said.

“It sup­ported a lot of life. A lot of the ma­rine fos­sils that we get in Saskatchew­an come from this time pe­riod, and one of the best places to find fos­sils from that age is ac­tu­ally along the South Saskatchew­an River.”

The two palaeon­tol­o­gists at the T.rex Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre rely on vol­un­teers and McGill Univer­sity field stu­dents to help them with the labour in­ten­sive field­work.

“It's mov­ing lots of rock and car­ry­ing heavy things,” Dr. Bam­forth said.

“So we get a num­ber of stu­dents ev­ery year. We have a lot of great lo­cal vol­un­teers who come out and help us, and for a few of the sites we also had our palaeon­tol­ogy team from Regina, so two other palaeon­tol­o­gists there, came out and helped as well.”

There is an off-sea­son vol­un­teer pro­gram at the T.rex Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre that pro­vides vol­un­teers with an op­por­tu­nity to learn more about fos­sils and how to han­dle them when they are still en­closed in rock.

“We like them to have some ex­pe­ri­ence in our lab be­fore we take them out into the field,” she said.

“We like hav­ing peo­ple in the field as well, be­cause lots of hands make light work.”

There is still a lot of work ahead for the palaeon­tol­o­gists af­ter the field­work sea­son. Fos­sils have to be sorted, cat­a­logued, and stud­ied.

The T.rex Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre is host­ing a num­ber of Tea and Fos­sils pub­lic events dur­ing the fall.

The Satur­day af­ter­noon events will give par­tic­i­pants an op­por­tu­nity to do hands-on work with real fos­sils for an hour, fol­lowed by tea, cof­fee and con­ver­sa­tion.

The next Tea and Fos­sils will be on Oct. 27, start­ing at 2 p.m.. There will be sim­i­lar events on Nov. 24 and Dec. 15 at the same time.

Ev­ery­one is wel­come and no ex­pe­ri­ence is nec­es­sary to work with the fos­sils.

Ad­mis­sion is by do­na­tion.

Photo cour­tesy of Dr. Emily Bam­forth, Royal Saskatchew­an Mu­seum

DIG­GING UP HIS­TORY: A field­worker ex­ca­vates an Ed­mon­tosaurus skull at a site near Shau­navon.

Ma­rine fos­sil clams were found dur­ing field­work at Lake Diefen­baker.

The un­cov­ered hip of a ju­ve­nile bron­tothere at a field­work site near Eas­tend.

Pho­tos cour­tesy of Dr. Emily Bam­forth, Royal Saskatchew­an Mu­seum

The up­per jaw of an Ed­mon­tosaurus, a duck-billed di­nosaur, was ex­ca­vated at a site near Shau­navon.

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