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.

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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.

Edmontosaurus in Edmonton

Happy 2015, readers! So many exciting things are happening right now – the Dino Hunt Canada website launched a few weeks ago and the documentary will air on History Channel Canada later this month, things are chugging away here in North Carolina, and the Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed special issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences was published just before Christmas. There’s already been lots of great coverage of the special issue, but I wanted to share a few thoughts here as well.

Please enjoy these very fine Edmontosaurus bones!

The special issue on this bonebed came about when Mike Burns and I got to talking about how the Albertosaurus Bonebed special issue had been such a good motivation for the lab to do some collaborative projects, and given that the PALEO 400 fieldschool students needed to develop research projects on the bonebed, wouldn’t it make sense to try to polish those into publishable form as well? This was back in 2012, and at that point there’d been 6 years of really good fieldschool students who had come up with a variety of interesting small-scale independent research projects. We put out a call to current and former students to see if anyone would be interested in expanding their project and contributing it to the volume, and also invited some of our colleagues who were working on hadrosaurs and/or bonebeds in some way to see if they would be interested in working on the material as well. Not all of the former students contributed papers, but I was really pleased by the number who did – it’s a big job to get a paper through peer-review, and I’m really proud of all the first-time papers in this issue!

Albertosaurus tooth!

It’s also been really rewarding to watch our volunteer fossil prep program grow over the years I was at the UofA – we started with a few volunteers here and there, but in recent years we’ve had as many as 8-12 people working in the lab on a weekday evening. We run two shifts of volunteers – an evening program from 5-7pm on some combination of Mondays to Thursdays, depending on the schedules of the grad students who supervise the volunteers, and a daytime program by appointment in our larger basement laboratory with the larger and more challenging projects. Most people start in our evening lab programs, and many of the bones prepared during those hours were from the Danek bonebed. The Danek material is amazingly good for volunteers – with a bit of soaking, the surrounding shaley matrix flakes off the relatively durable bones. We would never have gotten through all of that material so quickly without the dedicated help of a very large crew of volunteers! If you’re reading this from Edmonton and are interested in volunteering in the DinoLab, follow our Facebookpage for up-to-date contact information and hours.

Ian is a shoveling machine!

Although I haven’t gone out to the bonebed for the full 3 weeks each year, I’ve tried to get out at least a little bit each year, even if it’s only for ‘overburden removal’ days. It’s amazing how much dirt we’ve moved since my first year there in 2007! Because the bonebed is located in a nature preserve, we need to be a bit careful with how we handle the overburden – we can’t let too much sediment get into the creek, and we also can’t just cover up existing plants. What we’ve taken to doing is removing the topsoil from a ‘meadow’ nearby, evenly spreading the relatively sterile Quaternary sands/gravels in the clearing, and then ‘replanting’ the topsoil overtop and sprinkling with local plant seeds. We dig in the early spring, and by July the area is so green you’d never even know we had disturbed it. The bonebed is a beautiful place to work – we see lots of interesting wildlife because of the stream nearby, the matrix surrounding the bones is soft and incredibly easy to work with, and the bones are plentiful.

Clearing the ‘meadow’.

Sometimes it’s cold in April in Edmonton!

One of the things we mentioned in the press materials for the special volume is the presence of other dinosaur fossils throughout Edmonton and the surrounding areas. I have a hunch that if you dig pretty much anywhere in Edmonton, you’re probably going to hit a dinosaur bone at some point. There’ve been dinosaurs in the sewers and dinosaurs in the pipelines, and dinosaur bones pop up along the North Saskatchewan River with relative frequency. If you think you’ve found a dinosaur bone in Edmonton, make sure you understand the laws protecting fossils in Alberta – you need a permit to dig up fossils in Alberta, and fossils should be stored in accredited facilities like the Royal Tyrrell Museum of the University of Alberta Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology. But if you find something, tell the University of Alberta about it! Take a picture of what you found, and if you have the ability to mark the latitude and longitude with a GPS or your phone, do that too. You can get in touch with us via the DinoLab Facebook page. Maybe you will be the next person to stumble across a dinosaur in your city!

Not in Edmonton? The Danek Bonebed is where much of the taphonomy and fieldwork lesson for Dino 101 was filmed! The 4th session of Dino 101 started today, so go have a look if you’re interested in learning more about the bonebed.

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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What’s new with Dino 101?

The third offering of Dino 101 kicked off again last week, and we’re already into our 2nd lesson, on taphonomy and fossilization. Here’s a quick update for what’s new this time around!

  • A new section about the palaeobiogeography of dinosaurs was filmed, including lots of new scenes at the Royal Tyrrell Museum
  • We get to show off the Edmontosaurus with the “cock’s comb”!
  • We added in some more information on non-dinosaurian critters from the Mesozoic throughout the course, including pterosaurs, marine reptiles, and early mammals
  • I made a bunch of new 3D models for our fossil viewer interactive – now you can enjoy the baby chasmosaur’s skull in three dimensions of terror and amazement!

These are all in addition to some of the snappy upgrades to version 2, like the section on the baby chasmosaur and the fancier study guides.

So far there’s more than 11 000 students registered in Dino 101 v3, which means we’ve now reached nearly 50 000 students from around the world! The on-campus versions of Dino 101, including the flipped/blended PALEO 201, are also underway, and the PALEO 201 team is making some new activities about dinosaur footprints and trackways. I’m sure they’re going to have a great time!

You can join the fun at Dino 101 for free – register now at Coursera! And you can follow the course in its various social media forms, including Facebook and Twitter.

Scaling Up

Let’s turn our attention from hadrosaur skin to ankylosaur skin, a topic which has received surprisingly less attention in the published literature than I would have thought. I should qualify that statement, however, by saying that by ‘ankylosaur skin’ I mean ankylosaur skin impressions, because ankylosaur dermal elements are well known and the focus of many a paper – I refer of course to osteoderms, which form within the dermis of the skin and which give ankylosaurs their spiky and armoured appearance.

For a couple of years now I’ve been keeping notes about occurrences of skin impressions in ankylosaurs, which eventually lead to a paper by myself, Mike Burns, Phil Bell, and Phil Currie. We reviewed the morphology of scale patterns in the few specimens that preserve skin, and found that there were some intriguing differences in scalation between different ankylosaurs.

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Cock-a-doodle-doo

I’ve finally got the time and gumption to sit down and write again, so let’s do some research blogging! And let’s show some skin while we’re at it!

The first paper I’ll talk about is not one that I’m lead author on, but which was a really fun project to be involved in. This was the description of a super cool specimen of a hadrosaur from the area around Grande Prairie with some impressive skin impressions. UALVP 53722 was collected as a large block that had fallen along the creekside. Unfortunately, the rest of the skeleton could not be located, which might mean it’s still in situ somewhere with nothing visible, or it had already broken apart into unrecognizable pieces. The block preserves the back of the skull with the neck arched over the shoulders, the classic ‘death pose’ seen in many dinosaur skeletons. Most of the skull is missing, but what is present shows that it is an Edmontosaurus regalis, the slightly older species of Edmontosaurus

Flat-headed Edmontosaurus at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

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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!

Who-oplocephalus: The Fellowship of the Half Ring

Behold, NHMUK R5161: the extraordinary holotype of Scolosaurus cutleri. This is truly one of the most amazing dinosaur fossils that has been collected from Alberta, and is one of the best preserved ankylosaurs in the world. And the best part is that it is on display for everyone to enjoy in the galleries of the Natural History Museum in London.

(Many thanks to Angelica Torices for snapping this photo for me! NHMUK R5161 is beautiful to look at, but difficult to photograph well, and I’m afraid most of my photos from my visit in 2009, while useful to me, are not necessarily that nice to look at.) Continue reading