Our Foundations exhibit may have just opened, but the Royal Tyrrell Museum never rests in its quest to show visitors the most accurate palaeontology information in dynamic displays. In 2017, a new exhibit will replace Lords of the Land, a beautiful gallery that highlighted some of the Museum’s most remarkable theropod specimens.

Installed in 2007, Lords of the Land  was initially meant to be a simple update of an existing gallery that displayed a collection of western North American theropods (bipedal, mostly carnivores). However, the project quickly evolved into an experiment in displaying dinosaurs a different way and taking the opportunity to impress visitors with the awe and size of a fully mounted dinosaur early in their journey through the Museum.

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An Ornithomimus in the classic death pose, with neck bent backwards over the body.

It took about a year to go from initial conception to installation. Lords of the Land is a marked departure from the interpretive strategy of the rest of the Museum. Rather than the natural history lens used in the other galleries, Lords of the Land presents specimens as works of art. The background is dark, the specimens are in gilded frames or displayed on Tuscan columns, and, if you listen carefully, you can hear classical music playing in the background. This design choice was partially made to differentiate it from past exhibits in the space. Theropods had been displayed there before, but the gallery tended to feature steel and hard lines, playing off the idea that carnivores were tough and aggressive and giving a sharp, modern feel. The art gallery inspiration gave the space a different atmosphere.

There is another innovation in the gallery: labels for the visually impaired. Not only are the labels for every specimen in Lords of the Land also written in braille, the specimens themselves were 3D scanned and imprinted on the plaques, creating extremely detailed miniature versions.

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One of the braille labels

Designing the gallery had its challenges along the way. It was initially intended to be much darker than it is now, with the only lighting coming from below. However, while atmospheric, these low light levels made reading and navigating difficult so overhead lights were added in response to visitor needs

Mounting the three raptor skeletons on their columns was also a test for our exhibits staff. While placing the skeletons on pedestals was a way to both save space and add to the art gallery vibe, there was a risk that the pedestals would wobble and damage the specimens. The solution was to mount the raptors on a skinny pedestal encased in a large column covered in shock absorbers.  No easy task!

The specimens displayed in Lords of the Land are some of the most significant and visually impressive we had in our collection at the time, including this one:

1884 Albertosaurus find-cast

This skull of Albertosaurus sarcophagus was found by Joseph B. Tyrrell (our namesake!) in 1884. Tyrrell was not a palaeontologist but a geologist looking for coal deposits in the Red Deer valley when he discovered the skull, which turned out to be a new species, one which was eventually named for this province. The species is also a bit of a special one for the Museum – it’s the first dinosaur you see when you enter and the only fleshed out dinosaur in the entire Museum.

In addition to the Albertosaurus skull, we also have the holotype of Atrociraptor (“savage robber”) on display.

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Atrociraptor: Dinosaur or death metal band?

A holotype is an individual plant or animal that serves as the basis for the description of a species. In other words, it’s what other finds are compared to in order to identify them. The Royal Tyrrell Museum has more than 300 holotypes but, because they’re so incredibly valuable, most are kept in a special locked storage area.

Lords of the Land also features dinosaur trackways, ornithomimids, and Alberta raptors.

If this all sounds too interesting for words or you’ve been before and loved it, don’t despair! There’s still time to visit before it all comes down. And we promise that, while the new exhibit may be different, it will be just as amazing and have just as many cool specimens.

Lords of the Land closes in late fall 2016, with the new exhibit opening spring 2017.

One of the most exciting things about the Royal Tyrrell Museum is that it’s more than a Museum, it’s an active research facility, so there are exciting things happening all the time that further our understanding of ancient life.

Dr. James Gardner, our Curator of Palaeoherpetology (the study of prehistoric reptiles and amphibians), has just published a paper on fossil tadpoles in a special issue of the journal Fossil Imprint, available for free here.

Scientific research papers often owe their origins to chance events and may take years to come to fruition. Such is the case for “The Fossil Record of Tadpoles.” Dr. Gardner’s interest in fossil tadpoles was sparked in the early 1990s, when he recognized a 45 million year old tadpole fossil in the University of Florida Museum of Natural History’s fossil plant collection. He began working on a manuscript reviewing the fossil record of all tadpoles but it was set aside for decades, as he became busy with other projects – his PhD dissertation, for example. Fast forward a quarter century later, when Dr. Gardner was invited to contribute a paper to a volume commemorating the Czech palaeontologist Zdeněk Špinar (1916–1995). Knowing that Professor Špinar had published many papers on fossil tadpoles, Dr. Gardner decided to resurrect and update his dusty and almost forgotten manuscript.

One of the most characteristic features of anurans (frogs and toads) is their two-stage or biphasic life cycle consisting of a free swimming, vaguely fish-like, and typically herbivorous larval form (tadpole) that undergoes profound and rapid structural remodeling (metamorphosis) to become a four-legged, hopping, and exclusively carnivorous adult.

 

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Metamorphosis of tadpole into frog. Source.

 

Metamorphosed or adult frogs are moderately well represented in the fossil record; but many people are surprised that tadpoles also appear. At first glance, tadpoles seem poor candidates for fossilization: they are small, have only a rudimentary skeleton, and the tadpole phase of a frog’s life cycle generally lasts only a few months.

However, lakes provide an ideal environment for preserving those kinds of fossils, thanks to the fine-grained sediments in lake bottoms that can quickly cover and preserve carcasses. They are also ideal habitats for tadpoles.

 

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Figure 1: An indeterminate tadpole body fossil from the middle Eocene (approximately 45 million years ago) of Utah, USA. Head points towards top of figure and scale bar along left side is in 1 mm increments. Note the characteristic tadpole body form, consisting of a globular head + body and an elongate, narrow tail. This specimen lacks any indication of a skeleton; either the individual died at a young stage before the bones began ossifying or bones were present but did not preserve. Note the preserved eye pigments, brain, and digestive tract. This fossil is in the collections of the University of Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, Florida.

 

Dr. Gardner’s review showed that the fossil record of tadpoles is better than most people realize. Tadpole body fossils have been known since the early 1800s, but in an interesting historical quirk, the first examples reported in 1828 were not recognized as tadpoles. It took another three years before tadpole fossils which were identified as tadpoles were published. Since then, fossil tadpoles have been reported from over 40 localities on most continents, except Antarctica and Australia. Those localities are in lake-style deposits and range in age from the Early Cretaceous to late Miocene (140–10 million years ago). A number of those localities have yielded multiple examples of different-sized tadpole body fossils, some so well preserved that their body outlines and details of internal structures like nerves and blood vessels can be seen.

 

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Figure 2. Examples of fossil tadpoles preserving bones and at different growth stages, both with their head pointing towards top of figure. Left: Pre-metamorphic tadpole of Shomronella jordanica (basal Pipimorpha) from the Early Cretaceous (about 130 million years ago) of northern Israel or Palestinian West Bank. This locality has yielded over 250 tadpoles of Shomronella. Right: Later stage tadpole undergoing metamorphosis of Palaeobatrachus vicentinus (Palaeobatrachidae) from the middle or late Oligocene (about 28 million years ago) of northeastern Italy. This is the only fossil tadpole known from the locality. The Shomronella fossil is in the collections of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel and the Palaeobatrachus fossil is in the collections of Paläontologisches Museum, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany; both photographs are courtesy of Prof. Zbyněk Roček (Prague, Czech Republic).

 

Size series of tadpole fossils from the same species are especially valuable because they provide large enough samples for palaeontologists to trace patterns of growth and metamorphosis in fossil frogs (the human equivalent would be having examples of everything from a baby to a teenager). The tadpole fossil record demonstrates that the distinctive tadpole body form and lifestyle and its astounding metamorphosis into a four-legged and hopping adult are ancient attributes of frogs.

This fish-like larval form can appear similar to other animals, such as fish and insects. In addition to reviewing the fossil record of tadpole body fossils, Dr. Gardner also examined reports of other fossils that have been interpreted as tadpoles. Those include 385 million year old larval fish fossils from the Middle Devonian of Scotland, a recently metamorphosed and 250 million year old skeleton of a proto-frog from the Early Triassic of Madagascar, and a piece of 20 million year old amber from the Dominican Republic containing what may be a tadpole hatching from an egg. Dr. Gardner provided the evidence against interpreting most of these fossils as tadpoles, although some, such as the Dominican amber, are ambiguous.

This paper and a second paper by Dr. Gardner on North American frogs from the Campanian titled “The Hopping Dead” (proof that scientists have a sense of humour) are available here. Fossil Imprint is an open access journal.

On August 14, Dr. David Hone did a special lecture at the Royal Tyrrell Museum on tyrannosaurs.

His first book, The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: the Biology of the Tyrant Dinosaurs, tracks the rise of tyrannosaurs, the most famous and best-studied of all dinosaurs. This engaging book presents the science behind the research and tells the story of the evolution, anatomy, behaviour, and ecology of the over two dozen tyrannosaur species and how they fit into the world of the dinosaurs. Good for all ages, his talk is a fun exploration and debunks some popular misconceptions about tyrannosaurs.

Dr. Dave Hone, palaeontologist and writer, focuses his research on the behaviour and ecology of dinosaurs and flying reptiles— the pterosaurs. He also writes extensively online about palaeontology and science outreach, has a blog for the science pages of The Guardian, and is a regular contributor for other media outlets as a scientific consultant.

 

 

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At the Royal Tyrrell Museum, we are equal parts excited and nervous because we just launched our first large-scale exhibit in over five years. The exhibit, Foundations, is about everything that is important to us as a science and natural history museum, from the very beginnings of planet Earth, to the evolution of life, to fossils and their journey from living beings and into our Museum collections. With its expansive scope and mix of specimens, hands-on activities, and technology, Foundations is another step in our continued commitment to studying and celebrating the history of life on Earth.

 

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The final session of the 2016 Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Speaker Series is a presentation by Jeff Zimmer, Fish and Wildlife Officer for the Drumheller district with Alberta Justice and Solicitor General on Thursday, April 28.

The recent sighting of a cougar near the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology this spring resulted in a lot of conversation in Drumheller about these misunderstood creatures. Often lumped in with their misbehaving cousins, bears, cougars have a bad reputation. In this presentation, Zimmer hopes to give people a better understanding of cougar behaviour and hopefully be less fearful of them. The cougar is Canada’s largest cat species.

Merely seeing a cougar does not mean you are in imminent danger. Cougars are generally shy and wary of humans, but are efficient hunters. They most often hunt at dusk, night, and dawn. Zimmer presents information on basic identification of a cougar’s habits and habitats, and then discusses how to prevent conflict and respond to an encounter.

Exoplanets are planets that exist outside of our solar system. The number of confirmed exoplanets is rapidly growing and now exceeds two thousand. An additional nearly 5,000 exoplanet candidates are awaiting confirmation in the NASA Exoplanet Archive. Most of these planets have been discovered by the NASA Kepler Mission, a space observatory launched by NASA specifically to discover Earth-size planets orbiting other stars. Smaller subsets of these planets are similar in size to the Earth and orbit in the (liquid water) Habitable Zones (HZ) of their host stars. It is estimated that about ten to fifteen percent of solar-type stars and about twenty to twenty-five percent of the more numerous cooler (red dwarf) stars host Earth-size HZ planets. These planets are of great interest because they have conditions roughly similar to Earth and therefore could be potentially habitable planets (PHPs).

In this talk, Dr. Edward Guinan, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, briefly discusses how these exoplanets are discovered; however, the main focus will be on the stellar and planet properties that appear necessary for life to form and develop on their surfaces. New missions and techniques to detect signatures of life (bio-signatures) on these planets are presented along with the feasibility of interstellar missions to nearby HZ exoplanets that could support life.

In this talk, Dr. Annie Quinney, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary, presents research on the recent discovery of 90 million-year-old fossil tree resin off the coast of Victoria, Australia. The fossil represents both the oldest amber from Australia and the southern-most occurrence of amber in Gondwana. During the Cretaceous, Australia was located further south than its current location, putting Victoria within the Antarctic Circle. Although little is known about the diversity of life at high southern latitudes during the Cretaceous, the preservation of amber suggests that a thriving forest was present within the Antarctic Circle at this time. At first glance, the amber appears to preserve, entombed within it, plentiful evidence of life: many amber pieces are full of inclusions that resemble microorganisms. However, although some of these inclusions are biological, many are non-biological structures masquerading as fossils. Despite difficulties differentiating between true fossils and fossil look-a-likes, the range of inclusions in a piece of amber may tell us where on a tree the resin came from.

Amber pieces dating back to the same age as the Australian amber were also found in northern Alberta and British Columbia. Geochemical analyses reveal that the Australian and Canadian ambers not only came from the same group of trees, but formed under similar environmental conditions. Comparisons with low-latitude ambers suggest that strong seasonal differences in daylight near the poles affected resin production.

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