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.

If you could ask a museum curator anything, what would you ask? How they got their job? What their favourite specimen is? The actor who should play them on TV? On September 14, 2016 curators around the world took to Twitter for #AskACurator Day to answer these questions. The Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Dr. François Therrien, Curator of Dinosaur Palaeoecology, was one of the participants. Did you miss the day itself? Here are Dr. Therrien’s answers (some even longer than the ones we posted on Twitter):

What’s your favourite dinosaur?

Ornithomimus, because it was the first feathered dinosaur discovered in North America and the specimens are in our collections.

What’s the oldest thing you have in your collection?

Oldest thing: In terms of fossils, we have stromatolites dating back to the Precambrian. In terms of rocks, I’m pretty sure we have rocks from the NWT that are among the oldest rocks known on Earth.

stromatolite

How do you make your museum accessible to people who don’t know much about the subject?

Our newest exhibit, Foundations, presents the basic scientific concepts required to understand palaeontology.

What’s one cool thing about being a curator that most people don’t know?

You get to go out in the field in search of fossils to fill gaps in the collections!

What’s the smallest fossil in your collection?

Fossil pollen grains.

 What’s your favourite item in your collection?

Dinosaur skeletons!

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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.

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