The discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of hominin (the group encompassing modern humans, extinct human species, and all close human ancestors) was announced in September 2015. Found in a deep, nearly inaccessible cave system, this was the largest concentration of hominin bones ever found in Africa. The unusual distribution of bones suggested symbolic behaviour (e.g., deliberate placement by other H. naledi). The find attracted global media attention, including a feature in National Geographic. This discovery had such an impact that it was easily identified as one of the top 10 science discoveries of 2015 by numerous news outlets. The deposits, however, remain undated, leaving their evolutionary significance uncertain – were they a direct human ancestor or another branch on the family tree?

In the last talk of the 2017 Speaker Series, Dr. Eric Roberts, Associate Professor and Head of Geosciences, James Cook University, Queensland, Australia, presents an overview of the discovery of the site and discusses the efforts that went into unravelling the complex geological context of the cave system. He finishes with an overview of his team’s efforts and progress over the last two years at dating the fossils and refining our understanding of this important new hominin locality.

May 12, 2017

A new exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology welcomes Albertans to discover spectacular fossil finds from across the province.

As one of the best places in the world for fossil preservation and discovery, Alberta is an exciting window into prehistoric life. The museum’s new exhibit, Grounds for Discovery, showcases some of the most significant fossils that have been discovered through industrial work.

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Thousands of cubic metres of soil, gravel, and bedrock are excavated in Alberta every year through road construction, urban development, mining and other industrial activity. When fossils are exposed during these activities, Royal Tyrrell Museum scientists and industrial workers cooperate to safely excavate and protect Alberta’s fossils for scientific study and display.

Each discovery that has been reported and excavated contributes to global research.

“The new Grounds for Discovery exhibit shows visitors first-hand the positive outcomes of reporting fossil discoveries and working with industry. Through personal stories and exceptional specimens, the Royal Tyrrell Museum shows us once again why it is a premier palaeontological research centre and a world-class tourist attraction in this province.”
– Ricardo Miranda, Minister of Culture and Tourism

The centrepiece of the exhibit is a new species of dinosaur discovered at the Suncor Millennium Mine near Fort McMurray in 2011.

A Suncor employee spotted something unusual while excavating in the mine. Little did he know that this would turn out to be one of the most significant dinosaur discoveries in the world.

This new species of nodosaur (armoured dinosaur) is the oldest dinosaur known from Alberta – approximately 112 million years old – and is the best preserved armoured dinosaur ever found.

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Since its discovery, the public have been able to share in the nodosaur’s journey by watching its painstaking preparation by technicians through the lab gallery window. For the first time, all the pieces have been put together so it can finally share its story.

Research on this extraordinary nodosaur was supported through the National Geographic Society and is being featured in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine, available online today and on print newsstands on May 30. The magazine feature includes an interactive featuring a 3D model of the nodosaur, both how it looked and lived in its day, and how it came to be fossilized for millions of years before its discovery.

Other exceptional finds highlighted in the exhibit include a new genus and species of a pantodont (a rare early mammal) found during road construction near Red Deer, and a mosasaur found at the Korite Mine in southern Alberta whose spectacular preservation sheds light on marine reptile behaviour.

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“Staff at the Royal Tyrrell Museum and our colleagues at the Royal Alberta Museum have been working for several decades to educate industry on the importance of preserving and protecting fossils uncovered by industrial activities. This exhibit highlights some of the results of this collaborative approach to heritage preservation.”
– Andrew Neuman executive director, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology

 

Grounds for Discovery Fact Sheet

About The Museum Fact Sheet

Media inquiries:

John Archer
john.archer@gov.ab.ca
587-985-4252
Acting Press Secretary
Alberta Culture and Tourism

Carrie-Ann Lunde
Head, Marketing & Public Relations
Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology
carrie.lunde@gov.ab.ca
403-820-6208

Adaptive radiation is when a group of animals evolve into different forms to fill different roles in their environment. In his talk, Dr. Ben Evans, McMaster University, provides evidence for an example of an adaptive radiation; the fanged frogs of Southeast Asia. Different species of fanged frogs have unique characteristics, including body size and reproductive strategy that allow them to co-exist in the same habitat. Through comparison to frogs in the Philippines and other species of animals, Evans discusses how fanged frogs underwent rapid speciation on Sulawesi, and how this fast-paced evolution led to remarkable changes. He also explains the broader context of fanged frog evolution for conservation and evolutionary studies.

 

Alberta is home to six native species of snakes. They include the venomous prairie rattlesnake, the bull snake (that can grow up to two metres long), and the western hog-nosed snake that rolls over and plays dead when frightened. Snakes are feared and misunderstood by most of the human population and this can lead to their persecution and destruction. All of Alberta’s snakes are protected by provincial law, but this still does not stop some people from intentionally killing them, turning them into pets, or selling live ones.

Officer Zimmer spent several years working in snake country in the southeast corner of the province both protecting snakes and dealing with snake issues. In his presentation, he talks about identifying native snakes, how to prevent encounters, and protect native snake habitat. He also provides tips on what to do if you’re bitten by a snake.

The actinopterygians, or ray-finned fishes, are a substantial and significant component of modern vertebrate (animals with backbones) diversity. Ray-finned fishes are bony and have paired fins that are supported by rays (the actinosts) that insert directly in the body. Examples of modern ray-finned fishes include trout, eels, and bettas. Despite their prevalence today, the early evolution of this group is poorly understood compared to other major groups, driven by a lack of informative fossil data.

In his talk, Conrad Wilson explains how recent work on Early Carboniferous fossil sites from Nova Scotia and around the world provide new insight into the evolution of this group and how the development of the modern vertebrates may have been influenced by the mass extinction at the end of the Devonian Period (419 – 359 million years ago).

Mosasaurs were large, flipper-bearing swimming lizards from the age of the last dinosaurs, about 100–66 million years ago. Typically reaching the size of a pickup truck in length—and some nearly twice as long—over 70 mosasaur species are reported today based on the fossils collected from all over the world. Out of this highly diverse assemblage, halisaurine mosasaurs were small and seemed less well adapted to life in water since they lacked the well-developed flippers and tail fin of their larger contemporaries. Yet these small mosasaurs became increasingly more common in the fossil record towards the end of the Cretaceous, indicating their evolutionary success alongside their larger, fast-swimming cousins.

In his talk, Dr. Takuya Konishi, from the University of Cincinnati, explains why a recently discovered skull from Japan sheds new light on halisaurine mosasaurs’ potential survival strategy: that halisaurines evolved a pair of large, forward-facing eyes that would have increased their ability to see in the dark, allowing them to hunt at night.

Alberta is a great place for a dinosaur palaeontologist, with plenty of preserved skeletons and some of the best evidence for dinosaurs in the world.

However, in the Willow Creek Formation of southwestern Alberta, which records the last few million years before the extinction of dinosaurs, only three kinds of dinosaur skeletons have been found: Tyrannosaurus rex, an undetermined hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur), and an undetermined leptoceratopsid (small horned dinosaur). Were those the only dinosaurs living here during that time? Unlikely, but how do we know what dinosaurs were present if their skeletons weren’t preserved?

Unlike many geological formations in Alberta, dinosaur eggshells are quite common in the Willow Creek Formation. The ancient soils (a.k.a. paleosols) present in the formation suggest that conditions were arid to semi-arid at the time, which led to excellent preservation of dinosaur eggshell. Like skeletons, eggshells tend to be distinctive between the various kinds of dinosaurs and can be used to identify what dinosaurs were present.

A new scientific article by our Curator of Dinosaur Palaeoecology, François Therrien, in collaboration with Darla K. Zelenitsky, Kohei Tanaka, Philip J. Currie, and Christopher L. DeBuhr, presents an analysis of eggshells discovered in the Willow Creek Formation. The team inspected hundreds of dinosaur eggshells recovered from several sites in southwestern Alberta. They were able to determine that the eggshell fragments were produced by at least seven different types of dinosaurs: two ornithopods (a group of bipedal, herbivorous dinosaurs, including hadrosaurs) and five small theropods, including oviraptorosaurs, troodontids, and dromaeosaurs (colloquially, raptors). Because researchers frequently cannot correlate an eggshell with a specific species unless it is associated with a parent or a baby inside the egg, eggshells are given their own species names, in parallel to the way skeletons are named. These are called ootaxa.

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Montanoolithus eggshell, belonging to a small theropod, was discovered in southwestern Alberta. Art by Julius T. Csotonyi.

This research triples the known dinosaur diversity of the Willow Creek Formation, from three species based on skeletons only, to at least nine known from skeletons and eggshells. In addition, it extends the known temporal range of some of the ootaxa to 10 million years and gives a better sense of the ancient ecosystem in southwestern Alberta at the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs.

The article, titled “Latest Cretaceous eggshell assemblage from the Willow Creek Formation (upper Maastrichtian – lower Paleocene) of Alberta, Canada, reveals higher dinosaur diversity than represented by skeletal remains,” was published in the January 2017 issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Science.

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