There are many individuals in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology’s thirty-year history who have contributed to its success as Canada’s dinosaur museum. Maurice Stefanuk (1924-2016) was one of the Museum’s first technicians and research assistants who worked on many of the original specimens that are on display today in our Dinosaur Hall. Born and raised in Drumheller, Alberta, Maurice spent his childhood exploring the badlands. During one outing, he found a large carnivorous dinosaur tooth—a small discovery that sparked a life-long interest in fossils from the area.

During World War II, Stefanuk served as a sonar operator in the Royal Canadian Navy in the Battle of the North Atlantic protecting vital transport convoys from German U-boats. He made twenty-six dangerous transits from Canada to England.  In the fall of 1982, he joined the Royal Tyrrell Museum team, helping build exhibits as a dinosaur fossil preparator. After the Museum opened in 1985, he took field photographs of dinosaur quarries being excavated along the Red Deer River north of Drumheller and hiked the rugged badlands relocating them for Toronto-based palaeontology legend Dr. Loris S. Russell. New information learned from these dozens of sites was used in a recently published dinosaur biostratigraphic study.

Feb 8- Albertosaurus Skull

His biggest contribution to science was the discovery of two of the best skeletons of the comparatively rare tyrannosaur Albertosaurus (the Museum’s iconic symbol). One was discovered in 1973 east of Trochu, and the other in 1985, not far from the Museum. Both important specimens have been utilized in a number of displays and landmark scientific studies.

Albertosaurus has also become Alberta’s unofficial provincial dinosaur with representation on coins, stamps, and as part of the original Museum logo. When Canada House, home to the Canadian High Commission (and one of the most iconic buildings that make up Trafalgar Square in London, England), was undertaking some major renovations to reflect the art and culture of each province and territory, it was only natural for the Alberta Room to house an Albertosaurus. Just before he passed away, the cast of the skull of the second Albertosaurus Maurice discovered went on display.

Feb 8- Canada House

Image credit: High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom.

Remarkably, during his time of service in the war, a picture of Maurice was taken on shore leave in Trafalgar Square, just a stone’s throw away from the future Canada House.  Of course he did not know it, but some seventy years after that picture was taken, a fossil he would find thirty years later would be displayed less than 100 metres from where that picture was taken.

Feb 8- Stefanuk

Pterosaurs (“winged reptiles”) appeared at the same time as the first dinosaurs, about 230 million years ago, and went extinct with the last of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Pterosaurs first appear in the fossil record as fully-evolved, specialized, flying animals, so their evolutionary origins are still a bit of a mystery. They ranged from the size of a sparrow all the way up to the largest flying animals known with wingspans of 10-12 metres. They were the first backboned animals to evolve active, powered, flapping flight, and did so many tens of millions of years before birds, and 170 million years before bats. Pterosaurs have been known for over 215 years (longer than for dinosaurs), but their skeletons are very delicate and their fossils are extremely rare. Most of what we know about pterosaurs comes from just a few sites scattered across the world where exceptional preservation of many individuals, soft-tissues such as skin and “fuzz,” or  three-dimensional skeletons give us detailed views of just a  few hundreds of thousands of years out of the 160 million years that pterosaurs lived.

This presentation by the Museum’s own Dr. Donald Henderson, Curator of Dinosaurs, introduces pterosaurs and highlights many of their exceptional fossils that have been found in the past twenty years, and explains how our understanding of these mysterious animals has dramatically improved over this short time.

Quick question: How much does a polar bear weigh? Just enough to break the ice! This was one of the gems delivered by Dustin and Zak during the Museum Hack Audience Development workshop held recently at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

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Museum Hack is a company based out of New York City whose specialty is developing interactive, subversive, and non-traditional tours of art and natural history museums. They endeavour to evolve and modernize how visitors think of museums. Dusty halls filled with boring old stuff? Nope. Museums are overflowing with tantalizing tales behind every specimen on display.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology is no exception, our fossils have secrets. T. rex and Triceratops are just the tipping point as palaeontology spans 3.9 billion years of Earth’s history and studies a myriad of organisms. Museum Hack was here to bring our staff new ideas on how to share our love of the science of palaeontology with our visitors.

The day began, not with Dustin and Zak lecturing our staff in a classroom, but by bringing our team into the Museum’s galleries and experiencing the space as if we were visitors. We howled with our dire wolf because winter is coming. We stood under our elasmosaur and discussed the dirty scientific feud that developed when the species was first unveiled (seriously, go look up the Bone Wars right now, it’s fantastic). We received wildly scientifically inaccurate plastic dinosaurs, were tasked with finding their match in our galleries, and taking a selfie with it.

Jan 13- blog 2

Those, and the many other activities of the workshop, are not what you would expect from a traditional museum experience. Learning about the Museum Hack style challenged us as interpreters to expand the possibilities of how we connect visitors to science. Mixing mind-blowing scientific facts with fun ‘ice breakers’ creates engagement that is memorable and demands a return visit to learn more.

If you find yourself in New York City, Washington DC, or San Francisco book a Museum Hack Tour.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum is excited to announce some big changes in our galleries. We’re making a mess right now as we prepare to open Foundations, the first new major exhibit at the Museum since 2010.

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Opening May 20, 2016, Foundations will provide visitors with background context for the journey through time as they explore the rest of the galleries. It will lay the groundwork for understanding palaeontology, the importance of Alberta’s fossils, and the Museum’s role in protecting and preserving Alberta’s rich fossil resources.

Working behind the scenes are project managers, curators, preparators, collections staff, interpretive content providers, fabricators, exhibit and graphic designers, marketers, and members of the management team. This new exhibit will use unique specimens to present the story of life on Earth, how geological and biological processes have shaped our world, and how life has found a way to survive several mass extinctions throughout its 3.9-billion-year-history.

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Here is a sneak peek at how our new exhibit will look. Using Sketch-Up , our exhibit designers  lay out how the displays will be constructed to unfold the story. Sketches show visitor flow, preliminary design ideas, and interactive components that will be incorporated into the exhibit.

Interactive components such as a 4D globe, touch specimens, videos, and “the jacket lifting” game will enhance the visitor experience. Foundations will also give visitors a sense of the scope of the research that Museum scientists conduct and reasons why it is important to study the plants and animals found in the extensive fossil record.

 

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Frogs are the most familiar of living amphibians. Adults are distinctive; having a squat body, no tail, and powerful hind limbs. They also are entirely carnivorous, typically eating insects and other small invertebrates, although larger frogs will also consume bigger prey such as snakes, rodents, and even other frogs. Most frogs begin life in fresh water, where their gelatinous eggs hatch into a fully aquatic and herbivorous larval form called a “tadpole.” The tadpole feeds, grows, and eventually undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis that culminates in it changing into the adult form. Although frogs are constrained by being cold-blooded and having skin that can dry out, they are the most diverse and widespread of living amphibians. Today over 6,550 living species are found on most continents, except Antarctica. They occur in a variety of ecosystems including temperate forests, semi-arid grasslands, and lush tropical forests. Some frogs are fully aquatic, whereas others live in trees, alongside the margins of ponds and streams, or in burrows.

The fossil record of frogs extends back to the earliest Triassic (about 240 million years ago) alongside the earliest appearances of dinosaurs and mammals. Some spectacular frog fossils are known, including tadpoles in various stages of development and complete skeletons of adult frogs; however, the most common frog fossils are isolated bones. Thanks to the distinctive structure of the frog skeleton, most of their bones are easily identifiable and can be informative for identifying species.

In Alberta, vertebrate microfossil localities, which are accumulations of small fossil bones, teeth, and scales from many kinds of vertebrate species, are a rich source of frog bones from the latter part of the Late Cretaceous (about 85 to 65 million years ago). Frog fossils have been known in Alberta since the mid-1960s. The accumulation of specimens and research over the past fifty years from isolated bones collected from those microfossil localities, led Museum researchers to formally describe two new species of Late Cretaceous frogs earlier this year. These are the first fossil frogs to be named from Alberta.

The first species, named Hensonbatrachus kermiti in honour of the muppeteer Jim Henson and his Kermit the Frog™ muppet, was described by Dr. Jim Gardner, Curator of Palaeoherpetology, and Dr. Donald Brinkman, Director of Preservation and Research. Hensonbatrachus is known from skull bones, ilia, and a humerus. It was a moderate-sized frog, with an estimated body length of 75 to 115 mm. The external surfaces of its skull bones are ornamented with bony ridges and its upper jaws bore many small teeth.

The second species was described by Dr. Jim Gardner and was named Tyrrellbatrachus brinkmani in honour of the 30th anniversary of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology and Dr. Donald Brinkman, one of the founding researchers at the Museum. Tyrrellbatrachus is known only by a half dozen upper jaws, distinctive because they are considerably smaller, have a nearly smooth external surface, and are entirely toothless. Loss of teeth is a common feature among frogs and its occurrence in Tyrrellbatrachus represents one of the oldest (about 76. 5 million years ago) instances of this phenomenon. The presence of additional frog bones in the same localities that yielded these two new frogs indicates that a number of different frog species lived alongside dinosaurs during the Late Cretaceous of Alberta.

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Incomplete upper jaws (maxillae) of two new species of fossil frogs from the Late Cretaceous (ca. 76.5 million years ago) of Alberta, described this year by researchers at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology: Hensonbatrachus kermiti (top: specimen number UALVP 40167, holotype) and Tyrrellbatrachus brinkmani (bottom: specimen number TMP 1985.066.0035, holotype). Both specimens are shown at same sizes for ease of comparison; the smaller image of the Tyrrellbatrachus maxilla at left shows its actual size compared to the much larger Hensonbatrachus maxilla. The Hensonbatrachus fossil is courtesy of the University of Alberta Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology.

References:

Gardner, J.D. 2015. An edentulous frog (Lissamphibia; Anura) from the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) Dinosaur Park Formation of southeastern Alberta, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 52: 569–580.

Gardner, J. D., and Brinkman, D.B. 2015. A new frog (Lissamphibia, Anura) from the Late Cretaceous of Alberta, Canada. In: All Animals are Interesting: a Festschrift in Honour of Anthony P. Russell. Edited by: O.R.P. Bininda-Emonds, G.L. Powell, H.A. Jamniczky, A.M. Bauer, and J. Theodor. BIS Verlag, Oldenberg, pp. 35–105.

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The nests of most dinosaurs, including duck-billed hadrosaurs, consisted of eggs covered under mounds of vegetation and dirt. The vegetation mound is not represented in this illustration to display the eggs. (Art by Julius T. Csotonyi.)

Very little is known about the types of nests built by dinosaurs because nest structures and nesting materials do not usually fossilize. Yet what we do know about dinosaur nesting style can suggest information about the nesting behaviours among archosaurs (a group that includes crocodilians, birds, and dinosaurs), particularly associated with the origin of birds.

In an attempt to resolve this mystery, Kohei Tanaka and Darla Zelenitsky from the University of Calgary, and François Therrien from the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology investigated the eggs of over 120 species of living birds and crocodilians. They discovered that eggshell porosity is strongly correlated with nest types (“nest type” refers to either covered nests, in which eggs are fully covered under mounds of vegetation and dirt, or open nests where eggs are left exposed in the nest and brooded by adults), and can therefore be used as a proxy to infer the nesting style of dinosaurs.

The researchers examined the eggs of various dinosaur groups and show, in a study published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, that most dinosaurs, including the long-necked sauropods, primitive meat-eating theropods, and possibly the plant-eating ornithischians, buried their eggs in mounds of vegetation, like modern crocodiles do. It was only among advanced theropods, those most closely related to living birds (i.e., the maniraptorans), that the transition to open nests occurred.

Interestingly, early open-nesters, such as oviraptorids, Troodon, and enanthiornithine birds (toothed Cretaceous birds), still partly buried their eggs in the ground; it is not until modern-looking birds (i.e., euornithine birds) evolved that eggs were left fully exposed in open nests. The evolution of open nests, together with brooding behaviour, may have allowed advanced theropods to exploit nesting locations other than the ground, potentially lessening the odds of nesting failure due to predation and flooding, which may have played a role in the evolutionary success of birds.

The article was published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, which means that it can be downloaded freely at the following link: Eggshell Porosity Provides Insight on Evolution of Nesting in Dinosaurs.

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The nests of advanced meat-eating dinosaurs (i.e., theropods) were open with the eggs partly exposed so a brooding parent could keep them warm. (Art by Julius T. Csotonyi.)

Photo courtesy of Royal Tyrrell Museum and Rich McCrea.

Photo courtesy of Royal Tyrrell Museum and Rich McCrea.

A scientific paper published in Ichnos: An International Journal for Plant and Animal Traces, called “Vertebrate Ichnopathology: Pathologies Inferred from Dinosaur Tracks and Trackways from the Mesozoic”, focuses in-depth on a rarely published component of palaeontology—ichnopathology. Darren Tanke of the Royal Tyrrell Museum assisted nine other authors from Canada, the United States, and China in the benchmark multidisciplinary paper. Ichnopathology is the study of injuries and deformities displayed in fossilized footprints and trackways (a series of footprints). Just like people, dinosaurs suffered injuries from a variety of foot ailments. This study, focussing on carnivorous dinosaur footprints, is the first to examine the types and extent of injuries in great detail.

Some of the specimens from western Canada that were analyzed include a lengthy trackway of an allosauroid with a hip-injury, a footprint of a young tyrannosaur with a severely dislocated toe, and a trackway of an adult tyrannosaur with a missing inner toe. Other specimens included in study are theropod footprints from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of western North America and Asia.

The research described the abnormalities by studying the toe impressions, which include examples of swelling, extreme curvature, dislocation, fracture, and amputation.

A number of occurrences were also found in single trackways with significant deformation implying dislocation, fracture, or absence of a single toe. Preserved footprints and trackways demonstrated injuries were not infrequent and that non-life threatening injuries affected their locomotion. For example, 21% of all tyrannosaur prints known at the time of this study showed examples of ichnopathology.

The publication is not available without subscription; however, we are happy to answer any questions pertaining to this research.

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