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.

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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Let’s Build the Currie Museum!

A message from my colleague Dr. Phil Bell:

Hi all,

Some of you are already aware of the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, which is scheduled to be built in Grande Prairie, but certainly all of you are aware of Philip Currie himself. As part of the final push to raise the remaining construction funds, we have launched a crowd-fundraising campaign on www.indiegogo.com/curriemuseum. The aim is to raise $1,000,000 in 120 days. In the first hour alone, we raised $1,600!

Every donation, no matter how small, is important and donors are rewarded with a range of increasingly cool gifts including a museum logo pin, t-shirts, and original artwork by palaeo-art master Julius Csotonyi. It’s all outlined on the website, so please check it out, spread the word, and help us build a world-class museum and research institute.

Many thanks!

Phil Bell

Head Palaeontologist

Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative

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Cool Stuff

“Cool Stuff: The University of Alberta Museums Do Winter” is a winter-themed exhibit that opened last week at the U of A’s Enterprise Square location. I checked it out last weekend and was pleased to see so many different types of objects on display. We have 28 different collections on campus, and most (maybe all?) were represented in the exhibit – butterflies, moss, picked parasites, textiles, and more.  Continue reading

Hugo’s Boss

I almost forgot to mention a fun bit of news coverage that happened during our Grande Prairie fieldwork. The first Pachyrhinosaurus skull to be prepared from the Wapiti River bonebed was nicknamed Hugo (for I hope obvious reasons…). It is on loan to the Grande Prairie Regional College for the next few months and is on display in a case beside their bookstore. The Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune did a nice little piece on the new display and features a completely awesome photo of Phil Currie and prep technician Susan Kagan.

Susan has been pummeling her way through the hard ironstone nodules that enclose the Wapiti River skulls – here is a photo from last fall of progress on the next skull to be prepared. It’s come a long way since then, but it takes a long time to get these guys ready.

Grande Prairie Regional College also has a full skeletal mount of Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, the species known from the Pipestone Creek bonebed.

Ok, that should actually be the end of Pachyrhinosaurus updates for the next little while…

Pipestone Creek Bonebed

The area around Grande Prairie is rich with dinosaur fossils, although the setting is somewhat different than you might expect if you’re used to working in badlands like Dinosaur Provincial Park. In Grande Prairie, the only badlands outcrops are the Kleskun Hills, and most other sites are found along creeks and river valleys. I spent the bulk of my time at the Wapiti River bonebed, but helped out a little bit at the concurrent excavation at Pipestone Creek. Continue reading