When a “Big One” is Found – What happens behind the scenes

When companies (or anyone, for that matter) encounter fossils while excavating, the Alberta Historical Resources Act requires them to report the find to Alberta Culture via the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. It is then up to us to determine what has been found, and how to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

Typically, once or twice a year, the Museum gets a report of big fossils found during excavation activities somewhere in Alberta. Over the past few years we have received calls about mosasaurs and plesiosaurs found in southern Alberta as well as plesiosaurs and a dinosaur in the Fort McMurray area.

As you may have seen in the news over the past few months, the Museum was involved in the recovery of a dinosaur found by a pipeline construction crew near Spirit River, Alta. At nearly the same time, a mosasaur (a marine reptile) skeleton was being excavated from the Korite ammolite mine in southern Alberta. And even more recently, we received a call about a dinosaur found by a crew digging a sewer line in Leduc, Alta. With all these discoveries, and others, I am often asked: what happens when the Royal Tyrrell Museum gets reports about big fossils found by developers?

The process begins as soon as the Resource Management Program receives a phone call or an email from a developer informing us that they have encountered a fossil. This initial contact is usually followed up by a request from us for photographs of the fossil. Once we have confirmed that the find really is a fossil, we jump into action.

Within a day or so of the initial call we send out a small team (usually one to three people) to the site to evaluate the fossil, to determine what equipment and people will be needed to extract it, and to work with the company to develop a plan that will allow us to remove the fossil as quickly, and with as little disruption, as possible.

Once the team has completed its initial assessment of the fossil and started the excavation process we send out a bigger team (usually two to four people but sometimes six or more) of technicians with all the necessary tools and materials to do the job quickly and safely. The time it takes to complete the excavation depends on the nature of the fossil (its size, the type of rock in which it is preserved, its location, etc.), the weather, and many other factors. We understand that time is money for the companies that encounter these fossils and with the help of their heavy machines we have always been able to get the fossils out of the ground and out of their way a lot faster than we would at a more traditional style excavation.

The fossils are then loaded onto a truck and transported to the Royal Tyrrell Museum where they will be safely stored until they can be prepared, studied, and then possibly be put on display.

We often hear that companies are afraid that they will get shut down if they report fossils to us, but that has never happened. We make it a priority to make sure we get in and get the fossil out as quickly as possible to minimize the impact on the company. In most cases, the company is able to continue working around us, or in another part of the excavation site while we collect the specimen. Working together we have been able to preserve some amazing aspects of Alberta’s ancient past.

-Dan Spivak, Head, Resource Management Program

When fossils were discovered at the Suncor Energy mine, employees halted work and sent photos to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Scientists flew to Fort McMurray to investigate the next day and were amazed to find the rare remains of a 110-million-year-old ankylosaur, an armoured dinosaur.

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