Dinosaur fossil found in Alta

Suncor’s significant fossil find headed to the Tyrrell. A series of unlikely events over a span of 113 million years has resulted in the discovery of what may be the oldest dinosaur remains in Alberta’s history.

Experts from the Royal Tyrrell Museum think the fossil found by an oilsands equipment operator is that of an ankylosaur that lived 113 million years ago.Finding: The fossil found by Suncor employees in Fort McMurray will be flying to the Tyrrell museum this week, after extensive work is being done by scientists there to excavate the significant ankylosaur fossil.

A shovel operator at a Suncor oilsands discovered what may be the oldest dinosaur remains in Alberta’s history. He noticed what looked like brown discs in the black rock on a small cliff he was excavating. Per Suncor’s policy, operator Shawn Funk shut off his machinery and reported that he’d found something unusual.

“It was really like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Suncor spokeswoman Lanette Lundquist.

The area remained closed to work while Suncor took pictures of the curious find and sent them to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta.

What it is? There, Don Henderson, the curator of dinosaurs, thought it could be the remains of a marine reptile, not an uncommon find in an area that used to be underwater. He thought he could see a fossilized flipper. On Tuesday, Henderson and another Tyrrell employee travelled to the site, 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

“After about 10 minutes, we realized it was something different,” Henderson said. “We did a high-five.”

Henderson realized the brown discs were the cross-section of a dinosaur’s ribs. He could see bits of backbone, the edge of a leg and tendons thick as broom handles, all encased and protected by a mass of minerals and other material.

“This thing is in a giant lump, about 85 per cent of it is still in the hill. This is a perfectly preserved three-dimensional fossil. This is the earliest, most complete find in Alberta. This might be the best one so far.”

Don Henderson, of Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., believes the bones belong to an ankylosaur. Such a complete skeleton of an ankylosaur has never been found before; it’s expected to provide new scientific information.

Unearthed by employees in Fort McMurray, the find has been touted as very significant by the museum because of the location it was found, the completeness of the fossil, the age of it, and the unique story behind it.

Henderson believes the bones belong to an ankylosaur, an armoured herbivore covered in plates and spikes, with “wimpy little teeth.” When alive, it was roughly five metres long and two metres wide.

On average, dinosaurs found in Alberta are 65 million to 75 million years old, while this find is likely 113 million years old, Henderson said.

“Especially now that we know most of the skeleton is there, it will teach us a lot more about these dinosaurs,” said Dr. Don Brinkman, director of preservation and research at the Tyrrell. “It’s going to provide our first sense of what the animals were like who lived at that time.”

The ankylosaur fossil, a plant-eating quadrupeds with powerful limbs and armor plating on their bodies, is completely three dimensional – rare for fossils.

Buzz. The media firestorm surrounding the find, with major news outlets like CNN picking up the story, has got the scientific world buzzing.

“Because it’s so unexpected, we’ve had some good response from it,” said Brinkman.

Once back at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, work will begin to prepare the specimen. Brinkman said they expect it to take a year to prepare it, but will have it on display in front of the prep lab window in the museum.

“It’s going to be a long involved process, the rock is very hard so we have to use powertools,” he said. “Because the armor plating is rough, we don’t know what the separation between the matrix and bone will be like.”

What is special? Finding a specimen like this in northern Alberta is rare, as that part was ocean when this ankylosaur fossil must have washed out to the ocean. It was not ripped apart by predators, and was buried rapidly, Brinkman said.

The Tyrrell believes this is a significant find because ankylosaurs are quite rare, and this may be the oldest dinosaur found in Alberta so far.

The location and structure of the find are highly unlikely. For starters, an ankylosaur was a terrestrial animal — this one ended up in an area that was 150 kilometres from any land at the time of its death. The dinosaur likely died and was swept to sea before sinking.

The remains likely began to fossilize within days or even hours, forming a “bombproof” protective crust that lasted until Funk uncovered it. Henderson praised Funk, who had just toured the Tyrrell last week, for his caution. A massive shovel like Funk uses could easily destroy a fossil without anyone ever knowing, Henderson said.

“This was just a series of very unlikely events,” Henderson said.

More digging. Lundquist said the area of the Suncor site will remain closed until all of the fossil is excavated. A meeting will be held Monday to determine the best way to do that. Once those parts have come loose, they will be taken to Drumheller on a flatbed truck.

The bulk of the fossil is sticking out from the side of a 12-foot cliff. Workers will sift through the rubble below for any smaller pieces.

“This crust is very good to protect the fossil, but it will be very difficult to prepare over the next two to three years. It’s worth it, though, for what we’ll learn.”

Such a complete skeleton of an ankylosaur has never been found before; it’s expected to provide new scientific information as it is uncovered by tiny pneumatic drills and air-driven tools. That work will have to be careful, Henderson said, because the encasing material is harder than the bones themselves.

Whether the remains are male or female cannot yet be determined.

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