Thousands of cubic metres of soil, gravel, and bedrock are excavated in Alberta every year during industrial activities. A day at work might be just like any other day, or it could be a day when something extraordinary is discovered.
In many places around the world, finding the remains of a prehistoric creature at work would be a once-in-a-lifetime event; but in Alberta, it is more common than people realise. That’s because Alberta has a particularly rich fossil record.
The reason that so many fossils, especially dinosaur fossils from the Late Cretaceous, are found in Alberta is the abundance of sedimentary rock exposed. This type of rock is formed when sediment, such as sand or mud, settles and is compressed by other sediments. Sedimentary rock forms in layers and those in the Alberta badlands were formed between 84 and 66 million years ago. When dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures died, they were sometimes buried in river sediments, eventually becoming fossilized. In the badlands, retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age stripped the land down to these Cretaceous Period rocks, so that many dinosaur fossils are easily accessible. In a place like Dinosaur Provincial Park, fossils are so near the surface that they erode out on their own and you can see chunks of dinosaur bone sticking out of the ground.
Outside the badlands, there are still untold numbers of prehistoric remains in Alberta – the problem is the tonnes of rock and ground cover make “natural” discoveries rare.
Proportionally, of the 160,000 fossils in the Collection of the Museum, not many are exposed through industrial activities; usually, only one or two significant specimens are collected per year. Although rare, industrial specimens tend to be unique and, therefore, valuable because they come from areas where fossil-bearing rocks aren’t usually exposed.
When a fossil is found through industrial activity, the Royal Tyrrell Museum is called to collect it. The idea of doing an exhibit on fossils found in this manner had been floating around the Museum for ten years; however, it was the discovery of a new species of nodosaur in 2011 that cemented Grounds for Discovery as a priority. The nodosaur was found by an employee at the Suncor Energy Millennium Mine near Fort McMurray. It is unique, at least 35 million years older than any other dinosaur found in Alberta and with near-perfect, three-dimensional preservation (it has often been commented that it looks like it is merely asleep).
An important part of the exhibit’s purpose is to encourage industrial workers to report any finds to the Museum and to educate them on how the process works. When workers think they’ve found something, the first thing they should do is call the Resource Management Program at the Museum (through the main line) and take photos. Resource Management staff will use the photos to decide if the find might be something significant. If it is, a small team, usually consisting of a palaeontologist and one or two technicians, will be sent out to assess the site. Once the initial assessment is complete, a full team of four to seven technicians will go collect the fossil. The Museum is adept at working within industrial standards. The team is experienced at dealing with all kinds of conditions. Despite what a big job it is to excavate a fossil, Museum staff work very hard to minimize the impact the excavation has on the project underway. Nothing in the exhibit took more than a few weeks to excavate – and some are very large specimens!
The exhibit also showcases a unique pairing of science and art to bring Grounds for Discovery to life. James Gilleard, an animation illustrator, designed the exhibit’s text panel graphics. His stylized, detailed, architectural approach fit well with the industrial themes. Meanwhile, Calgary-based artist Jeff de Boer created two wire reconstructions of specimens in the exhibit, similar to his work at Cross Iron Mills and at the Calgary International Airport. With this approach, the sculpture lets the visitor use his or her imagination to fill in the details.
Fossils are a resource that belongs to all Albertans. Grounds for Discovery conveys an important message about industry’s role in preserving this legacy for years to come.
Grounds for Discovery is now open in Naylor Hall and will be on exhibit for three years.