Mad Max: Fury Quarry

There’s a hadrosaur underneath this cliff. (Probably.)

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What’s up at Wapiti River?

The world can always use some more Pachyrhinosaurus bonebeds. So hooray to my friends and colleagues Federico Fanti and Mike Burns, and my PhD supervisor Phil Currie, for publishing a description of the Wapiti River Pachyrhinosaurus bonebed (currently in ‘early view’ accepted manuscript form at the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences).

A friendly Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai greets students at Grande Prairie Regional College!

 Most of the time, dinosaur palaeontologists look for bones in dry, barren landscapes – the badlands of Alberta, the Gobi Desert, etc – places that have lots of rocks and not much covering them up, like inconvenient forests or cities. But sometimes, you don’t have vast expanses of outcrop. In Nova Scotia, we dig up dinosaurs on the beach. In the area around Grande Prairie, Alberta, you look for bones in the outcrops along rivers and streams.

The very first summer I went out with the University of Alberta crew (way back in the halcyon days of 2007; the first Transformers movie was ‘good’, everybody read the last Harry Potter book overnight to avoid spoilers, and…apparently not much was happening in my musical spheres, but my, how time has flown), there wasn’t a Wapiti River bonebed. We knew that there were bones coming out of the riverbank somewhere, but it took the better part of a day to trace them up the hill to the bone layer. 

See if you can spot Phil for scale way up on the hill there, and remember that Phil is about 3x as tall as most humans. That’s where the bone layer is!

It’s a pretty steep hill, and so those first few days excavating the bone layer meant hacking out little footholds and gradually making enough of a ledge for us to sit on and walk around each other without plummeting to our death.

The last time I was there, in 2011, the ledge had expanded significantly, although you can see it’s still a pretty narrow slice! It’s a scenic place to work, with the river and boreal forest stretching away below; bear sightings were not uncommon (and occassionally closer than we’d all prefer), and I remember a hummingbird came down to check on us one day, buzzing around my head for a few moments!

In this bonebed, there’s a layer of bones in a crazy, mixed-up layer of folded mudstones, and those are pretty easy to excavate. 

Here’s a dorsal vertebra. Nice and easy.

But down beneath that, the skulls and larger bones are encased within super hard ironstones. We can’t really do much with these in the field, so we need to take them out in huge pieces. 

And here’s what the skulls look like. The circular depression down towards my left foot is the narial opening. The UALVP has like 15 of these suckers and they each take about 2 years to prepare with a crack hammer and chisel.

But the bonebed is also about halfway down into the river valley on a steep slope that’s hard enough to just haul yourself up, let alone a huge boulder. So we’ve been very lucky to have helicopter support to carry out some of the heaviest pieces at the end of each field season.

Up, up and away!

 Sometimes we were even visited by Aluk the Pachyrhinosaurus, mascot of the Arctic Winter Games in 2009!

This was probably the strangest day in the field.

 There’s still much more work to be done on this bonebed – we still aren’t exactly sure what species of Pachyrhinosaurus is present. The age is right for P. canadensis, but only time will tell. And with two Pachyrhinosaurus bonebeds in Grande Prairie – the Pipestone Creek bonebed with P. lakustai, and the slightly younger Wapiti River bonebed – there’s bound to be much more to learn about the evolution and biology of this unusual ceratopsian. 

Previously in Pachyrhinosaurus:
Wapiti River Fieldwork, Part 1
Wapiti River Fieldwork, Part 2

And don’t forget to check out:
Fanti F, Currie PJ, Burns ME. 2015. Taphonomy, age, and paleoecological implication of a new Pachyrhinosaurus (Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae) bonebed from the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) Wapiti Formation of Alberta, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, early view.

The Great Canadian Dinosaur Hunt

Dino Hunt Canada is almost here! Starting this Friday, History Channel Canada will be airing a series of hour-long documentaries devoted to dinosaur expeditions all across Canada – and not just in the famous badlands of Alberta! The production crew visited field localities in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, multiple places around Alberta, and British Columbia. It’s going to be a real who’s who and where’s where of Canadian palaeontology.

I’ll be in the second episode featuring work in Dinosaur Provincial Park, which we filmed in 2013. It was a fun if somewhat unusual experience to have such a large film crew with us, and I’m looking forward to seeing the whole shebang!

What was the crew filming in DPP? Tune in to find out!

There’s also a really excellent website to accompany the show. You can learn more about some of the dinosaurs featured in the series (including wonderful new artwork by Danielle Dufault!), see interviews with some of the palaeontologists, and submit ideas for a nickname for a new dinosaur excavated during the show by the Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project. You can even submit questions and maybe have my weirdo face answer them via Skype! All in all, it’s looking really good so far and I’m so happy to see the huge variety of dinosaur research being conducted across Canada by so many talented and hardworking people.

Know Your Ankylosaurs: Mongolia Edition!

After a whirlwind couple of weeks with a bunch of international travel, I’ve finally had a chance to sit down and write about my most recent paper on the ankylosaurs of the Baruungoyot and Nemegt formations of Mongolia. I’ve been interested in these ankylosaurs for a long time now, both because of their interesting cranial anatomy and their relationships to the ankylosaurs of North America (especially Alberta). So, here’s a plain-language summary of some complicated taxonomy! Hooray! Continue reading

Discovering Dinosaurs, Revealing Teamwork

It’s a wonderful feeling when you get to be part of something that celebrates teamwork.

Yesterday was the opening reception for the University of Alberta’s new exhibit, Discovering Dinosaurs: The Story of Alberta’s Dinosaursas told through U of A Research. The exhibit features the work of almost all of the current people in Phil Currie’s lab, as well as many of our alumni and colleagues.

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Paleo201 comes to an end

The first offering of Paleo201, Dinosaurs in the Fossil Record, essentially comes to an end today with the final field trip of the semester. The students will have their exam later in December.

Even though it is a lot of work to be involved in the creation of a new course, I think Paleo201 is a great addition to the University of Alberta’s paleontology offerings. Using the Dino101 content on Coursera, and pitched at an essentially first-year level (despite its 200 designation) for students from all faculties, Paleo201 is what’s called a blended learning course. We rely on the Dino101 course videos to deliver the base lecture content for the course, which means we typically only meet once per week for an in-class lesson. These lessons have included research talks by grad students in our labs on topics relevant to each week’s lesson. However, we also tried to break away from the lecture format for at least some of the in class lessons, to take advantage of some of the resources available on campus. One week we learned the basics of the rock cycle and general Canadian geology using the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Geoscience Garden, an installation of rocks from around Canada arranged in a particular fashion for students to learn basic mapping skills. And last week we did tours of the Paleontology Museum and our prep labs, including sneak peeks of some cool up and coming research projects. FUN FACT: Our Dunkleosteus skull cast was ranked higher than the dinosaur specimens in my highly scientific ‘what did you find most interesting’ poll. Blindingly obvious take-home message for instructors: Students like new things and surprises, and dinosaurs are not necessarily the be-all and end-all!

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You’re Invited!

The University of Alberta Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology is celebrating the 50th anniversary of a landmark international paleontology conference, held at the university in 1963 and which kicked off the start of our formal paleontology program here, with a symposium on Friday, August 30.

You’re invited to join us in Edmonton from August 29 to September 1. Our 50th anniversary celebrations will be held concurrently with the 2013 Canadian Paleontology Conference, and the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.


Abstracts for the CPC are due by August 1. You can register for both events, and find out more information, at our conference website: http://cpc2013.wordpress.com.

We hope that many of our palaeontology colleagues, and especially UALVP alumni, will be able to join us in Edmonton in August!

Dinosaurs 101

In addition to working through the home stretch of my PhD, an exciting project has kept me hopping for the last few months. I’m part of the team creating the University of Alberta’s flagship MOOC, in partnership with Udacity: Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology. If MOOC is a new acronym for you, don’t worry – it was for me, too. There will be three flavours, so to speak, of Dino 101, but all will feature the same online content. Dino 101 will be available through Udacity, for free, to everyone around the world. Registered University of Alberta students who want to take the course for credit will register for PALEO 200 (online only), or PALEO 201 (same online content, but with additional in-person activities like field trips).

Working on Dino101 has been a great experience for me so far, even though it can be challenging. We’re working closely with educational specialists to make sure the pedagogy is sound, and that our assessments will be rigorous. We want to make sure that real learning will occur. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the foundational aspects of the course, like what our learning outcomes will be, and what skills will be tested. I’ve been learning a lot about educational theory – even though the scale of MOOCs is new, there’s a lot of people on board with this project who have researched the best ways to deliver and assess online content. We also have a great team working on unique interactives for the course, which should enhance the experience for students.

As we finish off scripts and move into production, I’m looking forward to seeing some of the cool ideas we have planned for teaching the basic concepts of dinosaur palaeontology come to life. I also hope that this course will serve as a springboard for people who are interested in animal biology and geology, and that everyone will come away with a better understanding of the scientific method.

I hope we’ll see you in Dino101 when we launch this September!

(Check out the UofA’s official Dino101 page for more information and to sign up for updates.)

SVP, you’re so silly.

Those chairs nearly killed me.

 The annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting wrapped up yesterday. This year we got to visit the very nice city of Raleigh, North Carolina. There were many, many interesting talks and posters which I can’t possibly cover in detail here, but I will look forward to the papers that will hopefully eventually come out of this meeting. SVP is the big-time serious palaeo conference for most of us here in North America…and yet, although at times the talks are SO SERIOUS, what I really like about SVP is how much fun everyone is having. And this brings me to the chairs. The chairs at the Raleigh Convention Centre seem to have built-in whoopie cushions. If you sat down too quickly, the result was unavoidable. (Raleigh Convention Centre: please don’t change this!) And so, during the transition between each talk as people moved in and out of the session, a low murmur of toots resonated throughout the room. This was pretty funny during the talks, but was almost unbearable during the final banquet and awards ceremony on Saturday night. As we recognized the contributions of various members of the SVP, we would rise to give standing ovations. And as about 1000 people sat down simultaneously, the squeaky chairs were that much more noticeable.  Continue reading