There is much more to palaeontology than just dinosaurs, although they have a tendency to dominate in popular culture. Palaeontology is the study of the history of all life on Earth, through the fossil record. The Royal Tyrrell Museum’s researchers excavate and study fossils from a diverse range of fields.
Our scientists study not only dinosaurs, but pollen (palynology), amphibians and reptiles (palaeoherpetology), fish (palaeoichthyology), mammals (mammalogy), and the interactions between prehistoric organisms in an ecosystem (palaeoecology). Excavating a full dinosaur skeleton can be an enormous task, sometimes even involving helicopters and bulldozers, but for a palynologist, it’s as simple as taking a shovelful of dirt (or as palaeontologists call it, matrix). The dirt is then analyzed back in the lab to find the miniscule pollen fossils. In a 10 to 30 gram sample, there may be millions of fossils.
So what happens when a dig site involves different research zones? The badlands are spacious, but a good site for one kind of fossil may well be a good site for another as well. When fields do cross, it is a collaborative effort to get everything that is needed out without destroying the surrounding site.
Perhaps one of the most evocative examples of this was the discovery of an ornithomimid skeleton in 1995. Dr. Dennis Braman, Curator of Palynology, was working on a site in Dinosaur Provincial Park following up on a report of fossilized plants.
Although dinosaur bones are common in the Park, the more delicate fossils of plants are rare; therefore, this site was an important site. Dr. Braman’s team was using a jackhammer to remove the rock layer above the site when they struck bone. Not only had they found a dinosaur, it appeared to be articulated (the bones were preserved in the same position they had been arranged in life). Dr. Philip Currie, then Curator of Dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, was quickly alerted and came to the site. It was decided that the dinosaur, an ornithomimid, was significant and work on the plants stopped so it could be excavated.
This ornithomimid was important for many reasons. It was incredibly well-preserved, perhaps the finest ornithomimid ever found. It was obviously articulated. It was also in the coveted “death pose,” with the neck and tail arched towards each other, a rare but dramatic pose for theropod fossils. The skull in particular was so well-preserved that even the beak was present, a first for non-flying dinosaur fossils. In 2015, the fossil was revealed to be even more extraordinary. Technicians discovered that the skeleton had feather marks on its arm, providing both the first evidence for feathers in North America and a possible explanation for the first evolution of feathers in theropods.
It was a happy discovery for dinosaur palaeontology but a less joyful occasion for palynology and palaeobotany (the study of ancient plants). Although the team attempted to preserve the plant fossils beneath, most were destroyed in the dinosaur’s excavation. Sometimes, unfortunately, one palaeontologist must give way to another. But it isn’t all bad news for plant researchers. Although this site was sacrificed, other plant sites have since been found in Dinosaur Provincial Park. Besides, fossil pollen and spores are still the most abundant fossils found in the badlands. With these fossils, Dr. Braman and his colleagues are able to reconstruct ancient environments. Some palaeontologists know the dinosaurs themselves but it’s palynologists who can recreate the world they lived in.