Dino News and Views: Dinosaur Airlift

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After a 2-year hiatus, paleontology fieldwork in the Grande Prairie area was able to continue again this year. University of Alberta paleontologists led by professor and curator Dr. Corwin Sullivan, along with staff from the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum and local paleontologist Dr. Matthew Vavrek, observed prominent fossil localities in the area. This included several locations along the Wapiti River, as well as microfossil sites in the Kleskun Hill badlands.

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Dinosaur bones, footprints, and prehistoric plant remains were found and collected. However, the most significant specimen of the year has to be a fossil from the Redwillow River south of Beaverlodge. The river valley has already provided us with specimens of duck-billed dinosaurs such as the famous Edmontosaurus as well as tyrannosaurus footprints, but this new fossil is something else. An incomplete horned dinosaur skull that is out of the two Pachyrhinosaurus bonebeds, something new for the region.

The skull is located within a large block of gray sandstone that weighed several tons when discovered. This rock must be carefully removed in a laboratory before we can say with more certainty what species of dinosaur is inside. However, before being able to do that, it was necessary to remove the specimen from the deep and heavily forested valley that it came from.

This turned out to be no easy task. Horned dinosaur skulls are large and heavy objects on their own, let alone encased within a massive block of sandstone. The field team first needed to lighten the load, which was done over several days from early to mid-August. Rock saws were brought to the site and the process of cutting additional sandstone was undertaken. It was hard work, but unexpected surprises came along the way. One example was the claw of an ostrich-like ornithomimid dinosaur, uncommon in this area until now, that was hiding in the skull block. The site is also a gold mine for those interested in plant fossils, such as petrified wood and impressions of plant fronds, stems, and cones such as Metasequoia can be found easily.

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After as much rock as possible was removed from the skull, paleontologists covered it with a burlap and plaster field jacket, which formed a protective covering. Even after this, however, the block was still too heavy to be pulled out of the valley by human hands alone. We would need help from above.

That help was generously donated by Canadian Helicopters. Taking heavy fossils out of inaccessible places by helicopter is far from unheard of. It’s also expensive, so it doesn’t happen too often. To accomplish this, the 1,250 pound skull block had to be thrown into the net that would carry it under the helicopter. The crew had tried to air the skull out a few weeks earlier, but at the time it was still too heavy, so the pilot was forced to deposit the fossil in order to extract more rocks. I was able to go out there and help move the block towards the net and I can attest to how heavy it was even at the time.

The following afternoon, September 2North Dakota, the helicopter arrived and finally the delicate act of removing the fossil happened. Although the field jacket was there to protect the fossil that was inside from harm, it is always unpleasant to imagine that something is wrong, such as the fossil rapidly descending to the ground. Fortunately, the consummate professionals on and above ground managed to get the block out of the valley and onto a trailer with no problem this time around.

The specimen now rests safely in the laboratory of the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, but its journey has just begun. It will soon be taken to the University of Alberta for further preparation and study to find out what species of dinosaur is inside and what we can learn from it. This process takes time, so you won’t hear anything new about this particular fossil overnight. Yet this is just the newest of several fascinating discoveries that the Alberta Boreal Dinosaur Project team has made in recent years. Be on the lookout for new research and discoveries just around the corner.

Nicholas Carter Dinosaur Museum / Philip J. Currie


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