The extinction of mammoths is the most prominent of Late Pleistocene extinctions that wiped out nearly 70% of large mammals (megafauna) from western Europe through South America about 10,000 years ago. However, on small islands off the coast of Alaska and Siberia, populations of mammoths persisted for many thousands of years after mainland populations disappeared.

In his talk, Dr. Duane Froese from the University of Alberta presents new research on the extinction of mammoths and other megafauna from Arctic North America and the causes of the final extinction of a population on St. Paul Island, Alaska, about 6000 years ago.

The study of ichnology, or trace fossils, is a fascinating field of geology that provides a window into the behaviour of ancient animals. While body fossils help us to understand the morphology of an animal, trace fossils (whether they are footprints, bite marks, or nests) provide evidence that allows us to make inferences about how they lived their lives. Ichnology’s modern counterpart, neoichnology, the study of extant (living) animal traces, demonstrates what types of traces may be preserved, as well as letting us watch how those traces are created.

Dr. Noad’s talk covers examples of trace fossils ranging from termite nests to shrimp burrows, bird feeding traces to fish fin marks, and even traces that are interpreted to be from dinosaur urination. It encompasses a wide variety of both invertebrates and vertebrates, from worms to dinosaurs to mammals. Once you see the amazing diversity of traces, each of which captures a unique aspect of animal activity, you will never look at a mark on the ground in quite the same way!

Recent volcanic activity in western Canada is not widely recognised, despite the occurrence of at least four important eruptions over the last 4,000 years. This is not surprising given the low eruption rates, the remoteness of Canadian volcanoes, and the low population density in volcanic areas.
One of the few events with any confirmed observations is that of the 1700’s eruption of the Tseax volcano (Wil Ksi Baxhl M’ihl) in British Columbia. Although no written records exist, a rich oral history describes in detail the most recent eruption of the volcano, one of Canada’s worst natural disasters.
The largest recent explosive eruption in Canada occurred 2400 years ago at the Mount Meager Volcanic Complex, 65 kilometres northwest of Pemberton, B.C. This eruption was similar in size to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen’s and sent ash over 530 kilometres east into Alberta.
In his presentation, Dr. Williams-Jones describes these historical volcanic eruptions and explain the importance of studying Canadian volcanoes to better understand their eruptive histories and forecast any future eruptions.

Congratulations to the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Palaeoichthyology Research Assistant, Dr. Julien Divay. A paper which he coauthored is one of publishing company Elsevier’s top five most cited articles from the journal Cretaceous Research for the past three years. Why is this? Dr. Divay explains:

The article describes dinosaur ichnoassemblages (assemblages of trace fossils, in this case footprints and track ways) from the late Early Cretaceous of southern Shandong Province, in eastern China. In recent years, China has been investing money into the preservation and study of its geological/palaeontological heritage, by creating geoparks (China has 200 now, compared to Canada’s two parks, Stonehammer and Tumbler Ridge, and Tumbler Ridge was only recognised since the publication of our article), and inviting international researchers to work on them. That is how I was invited to tour multiple localities throughout China in 2012, including the Shandong sites, and to publish on these as part of an international collaboration led by Dr. Lida Xing (then a Ph.D. student and now a professor at China University of Geosciences, Beijing campus). We also took the opportunity to publish on a fish from Chongqing around the time I started at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in spring of 2015.

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Eight of the ten authors (from left): Julien Divay, Richard McCrea and Lisa Buckley (Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre, BC), Lida Xing (CUG, Beijing), Martin Lockley (University of Colorado, Denver), Qingzi Wu (Land and Resources Bureau, Shandong), Hendrik Klein (Saurierwelt Paläontologisches Museum, Neumarkt, Germany), Daniel Marty (Office de la culture, Paléontologie A16, Switzerland), and Yonggang Tang (palaeoartist).

The Cretaceous Research article “Diverse dinosaur ichnoassemblages from the Lower Cretaceous Dasheng Group in the Yishu fault zone, Shandong Province, China,” published in 2013, is co-authored by ten people based in China, the U.S., Switzerland, Germany, Poland, and Canada. I suspect that its popularity is based on three factors:

  • It is part of this push to publish the previously undocumented palaeo heritage of China, meaning that all of these new articles coming out in recent years are quite popular in China, and have a tendency to cite one another. This is likely all the more true for dinosaur tracks articles, since these were mostly ignored in China up until just a few years ago, and are now worked on by a relatively small group of people. In fact, the trip ended with the holding of the first Chinese Dinosaur Tracks Symposium in Qijiang with pretty much all of us.
  • The assemblages of Shandong are diverse, with at least two different groups of theropods, at least two different groups of sauropods differentiated by morphology and posture, and a mysterious tetradactyl (four-toed) track way that we tentatively (but, I think, reliably) attribute to a psittacosaur.
  • One of the theropod track ways is didactyl (two-toed), which is quite rare. This also gets a lot of attention, since it represents a deinonychosaurian (colloquially: a medium-sized raptor) track, and these tend to be crowd-pleasers
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Some of the didactyl tracks.

Dragon; fossil

Comments Divay: “One of my favourite pictures: As I went prospecting for more tracks around one of the localities, I found this statue of a pacing dragon, immediately above the didactyl track way (Lida and the crane we were using are visible at the bottom of the hill, to the right). 2012 was a year of the dragon, too, by the way.”

The paper is available in Cretaceous Research 45 (2013).

The discovery of the first feathered dinosaurs in 1998 irrevocably changed the perception of the physical appearance of dinosaurs. No longer the scaly reptiles of our imaginations, these animals were covered with feathers similar to birds. Since that first discovery, over 40 different species of dinosaurs are now known to have been covered with feathers and allow us to tackle the question: how did birds get their wings and learn to fly? Three main hypotheses have been proposed over the years to explain the origin of wings, all equally plausible and difficult to prove. However, the recent discovery of feathered ornithomimids in Alberta offers an unexpected alternative to explain why wings first evolved.

In his presentation, Dr. Therrien highlights these ornithomimid discoveries and explores their implications for the study of the evolution of wings.

Dinosaur Provincial Park received a special pair of visitors in August: Drs. Pan Conrad and Dina Bower of the Planetary Environments Laboratory at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Dr. Conrad is an astrobiologist and mineralogist. She studies both minerals and extraterrestrial life. Dr. Bower is a palaeobiologist and geobiologist—she studies microbes from the beginning of life on Earth. Both are involved in the search for proof of prehistoric life on Mars.

Mars and Earth formed at the same time but look radically different now. It’s unclear if this is merely because of their respective locations (Earth is in a sweet spot, Mars not so much) or because Mars was damaged in some way. About four million years after the planets were formed, asteroids shot through the solar system and Mars may have been hit so badly that the planet re-melted. We do know that its magnetic field was lost, which means the planet has no protection against deadly radiation, both background radiation and from the sun.

full_marsWhy does this matter? These deadly radioactive particles are able to strip away a planet’s atmosphere. It’s possible that life emerged at the same time on both Earth and Mars (either concurrently or one seeded the other—yes, there is a possibility that all life on Earth is technically extraterrestrial); however, life on Mars was thwarted. While there are no signs of life on the surface of Mars, there may be evidence beneath the surface. As there are a lot of rocks on Mars, the challenge is figuring out which ones may hold the fossils of early life.

We know roughly when life emerged on Earth, so the best place to start looking is in rocks that are the same age, but dating rocks on Mars is tricky. On Earth, we need to know the mass of a sample in order to accurately date it. As there is currently no way to bring samples back from Mars, how can we get samples to analyze?

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The Royal Tyrrell Museum believes that science should be accessible for everyone to understand and engage with. This is why we are involved with the citizen science movement. Citizen science is the concept of having civilians work with professionals to collect and measure scientific data together. To engage people with palaeontology, there are several programs at the Museum that enable citizens to contribute to active scientific research.

Fossil Identification

One of the services the Museum offers to the public is fossil and rock identification. We provide an electronic form for people to submit, that includes photos and location information about the objects they encounter. Although more than 80% of discoveries can be identified from photographs alone, many turn out to be non-fossiliferous rocks or modern bone. Those that are fossils can often be identified in broad terms using the photographs. Dr. David Eberth, lead scientist for the Museum’s fossil identification process estimates that each year the Museum receives hundreds of reports from the public and follows up on 10–20 of the these with field investigations or by contacting appropriate researchers at scientific institutions across Canada. Among this smaller subset, four or five are eventually deemed significant enough to warrant further study by the Museum.

If you find something you think is a fossil, take a picture, note its location and contact us here. (Don’t move it! The original location is called the provenance and it’s very important). It could be one of our annual significant finds!

Encana Badlands Science Camp

The Encana Badlands Science Camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum is a little bit different than most summer camps. There is no horseback riding or archery. There is, however, real palaeontological work.

The Museum has been running an educational camping program since 2005, but it was only in 2010 that campers began working with the Museum’s researchers, principally Dr. Don Brinkman, Director of Preservation and Research, and former Betsy Nicholls Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Mike Newbrey (now a palaeoichthyologist at Columbus State University).

Their first major project was sorting through Myledaphus (a Late Cretaceous guitarfish) teeth. Dr. Newbrey wanted to prove that both adults and juveniles were present at the site the teeth were from, but to do that, every single tooth had to be inspected. The campers were given this project and eventually helped Dr. Newbrey prove his hypothesis.

Myledaphus

A fossilized Myledaphus

While the campers sorted, Dr. Newbrey was doing a parallel experiment; testing to see how accurate the data was. The acceptable error rate for a project of this nature is 2-5%. How did the campers stack up? At a very competent 3% error rate, they were well within acceptable limits.

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Some of the campers sort fossils

Since then, the campers have prospected for fossils, helped in excavations, screenwashed and sorted fossil matrix, and have done more data collection. They have also helped in conservation efforts for Midland Provincial Park and began work on a cast of an Ornithomimus skeleton that they are hoping to donate to the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

It’s a win-win situation. The campers get valuable experience doing real scientific work and our researchers get solid data from extremely large projects.

This experience has had far-reaching benefits. Many campers who participated are now pursuing science degrees or degrees in science education. Some are already on the road to becoming palaeontologists themselves one day. In fact, former camper Greg Funston has just published a paper on Avimimus, in collaboration with the University of Alberta’s Dr. Philip Currie and our own Dr. David Eberth.

There are three kinds of Science Camp: Junior (for campers aged 9-12), Senior (for campers aged 13-16) and Family Camp (for adults and their children). You can find more information about Science Camp here.

Palaeo Project Edutours

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With the success of Encana Badlands Science Camp, the Museum decided to extend the concept to targeted school groups. In 2012, the Palaeo Project was piloted with a group of high school students for a day, and the first Palaeo Project Edutour was delivered in October 2013.

The Palaeo Project Edutour is now a two-day session offered to targeted school groups, with participants sleeping over in the Museum. They are introduced to the fossil specimen, participate in a screenwashing exercise, taught how to identify microfossils, sort through fossil matrix, and then in the evening, they do data collection for real research projects. Their current project is measuring fossil crocodile teeth for Dr. Don Brinkman to understand the size-frequency distribution of crocodile teeth in vertebrate microfossil localities. The goal of this study is to use this information to draw inferences about growth rates in crocodiles. In previous years they have worked with gar fish scales and Myledaphus teeth.

crocodile

The students work in groups. They measure the fish scales but they also double-check each other’s results. In this way, the program is self-regulating. Through this hands-on work, the students not only learn about palaeontology but also about following the steps of the scientific method from hypothesis to data collection to conclusion.

One of the big challenges of the Edutours is finding willing students. Unlike in Science Camp, where all the campers are there because they are interested in palaeontology, classrooms have students with diverse interests. One of the most important and tricky aspects of planning a Palaeo Project Edutour is finding classes who will enjoy the work.

Although Palaeo Project Edutours have not been in operation as long as Science Camp has, the results so far have been promising.

Citizen science is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Scientists get much needed help quantifying and analyzing massive amounts of data, while participants learn about the scientific method, improve their critical thinking skills, and develop a stronger feeling of connection with scientific research. Successful citizen science projects prove that science truly is for everyone.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum is proud to be involved in the citizen science movement. For more information on getting involved with the Museum’s citizen science projects, visit tyrrellmuseum.com.

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