Fossils in Focus: Global Research of Ancient Alberta

FIF-2017-slider-WEBThe Royal Tyrrell Museum’s rotating exhibit, Fossils in Focus, reopens this Thanksgiving weekend with a new selection of specimens. Designed to highlight significant fossils from our vast collection, this year features current research being conducted by our scientists and other palaeontologists across the world from a variety of different disciplines. The diversity of research areas presented in this exhibit demonstrates how studying different aspects of prehistoric life give us a stronger scientific understanding about ancient Alberta’s environment and the animals that lived there.

Fish and Bits

Research Question: Since fishes are rarely preserved as articulated skeletons, is it possible to gather the same amount of information from small, isolated bones, and teeth?

-Dr. Julien Divay, Research Assistant, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology


Notogoneus osculus


Notogoneus sp. vertebrae

Due to the rarity of articulated fish fossils, Royal Tyrrell Museum Research Assistant, Dr. Julien Divay, wondered whether it was possible to gather the same amount of information from small, isolated bones and teeth. Smaller, more delicate animals like fish only tend to have articulated fossil remains if preserved in a very specific setting. After death, their skeletons need to be buried quickly without being agitated by moving waters, like in a deep lake. The majority of fish fossils are preserved as isolated bones deposited by rivers; and they are unstudied, causing uneven scientific knowledge of freshwater fishes, with long-lived lakes (e.g., Green River Formation in Wyoming) being very well studied, while very little is known outside of those (e.g., in rivers).

Isolated fossil vertebrae specimens from Alberta’s Dinosaur Park Formation were identified as a close relative of Notogoneus osculus, a milkfish that lived 20 millions of years later, and is well-known from the Green River Formation in Wyoming. The isolated vertebrae are three-dimensionally preserved and not warped, allowing researchers to document every detail of their surfaces for comparison. They represent the first evidence that Notogoneus lived in Alberta during the Late Cretaceous.

Forgotten Frond

Research question: When did palms first evolve outside of the tropics?

-Dr. David Greenwood, Palaeobotanist, Professor, Brandon University, Manitoba


Sabalites geneseensis

New research does not always come from newly collected specimens. While inspecting the Museum’s fossil plant collection recently, Dr. David Greenwood, Palaeobotanist at Brandon University, noticed an unusually small fossilized palm specimen, smaller than the leaf of any palm currently living or extinct.

Originally collected in 1995, this significant fossil was found very close to Edmonton and provides the first evidence that palms grew farther north than originally thought. It is also the first time a fossil palm has been reported from rocks younger than the Age of Dinosaurs from Alberta or anywhere in Canada, east of the Rockies. This fossil palm leaf represents the fan palms, or coryphoid palms, which include the coldest-tolerant living palms alive today, as well as the familiar palms of Los Angeles and Palm Spring’s golf courses.

Dr. Greenwood found that this new species lived about 65 million years ago, providing evidence that central Alberta was a relatively warm and wet place during the early Palaeocene, but not tropical. Studying these fossils that indicate climate change in the prehistoric world, helps scientists better understand the currently changing climate. Palm fossils (pollen, flowers, leaves, seeds, wood, and trunk molds) are excellent indicators of past climates. Adult palms can be resistant to limited cold weather, but seedlings cannot survive at all. Most fan palms have leaves a metre wide or larger and very few living palms have small leaves. The size of Sabalites geneseensis suggests that palms were growing at their absolute cold limit, and were most likely small forest floor plants with a trunk that was underground as seen with modern palmetto palms in the US southeast.

From the Deep

Research Question: What organisms lived in Alberta’s ocean during the Jurassic Period?

-Dr. Rowan Martindale, University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences


Seirocrinus subangularis (crinoid)

A Konservat Lagerstätte is a deposit of exceptionally preserved fossils, where even soft body parts are found. There were only three Early Jurassic Konservat Lagerstätten known in the world until an incredible diversity of exceptionally preserved marine life was discovered in southwest Alberta at the Parks Canada Ya Ha Tinda Ranch by Dr. Martindale from the University of Texas.

The Ya Ha Tinda assemblage consists of articulated vertebrates (fishes, ichthyosaurs), crinoids, crustaceans (shrimp and lobsters), brachiopods, abundant molluscs (including ammonites, gastropods [snails], and bivalves [clams and oysters]), wood, and microfossils. It captures a marine community before, during, and after the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event, which caused a major global extinction. An anoxic event refers to times in the deep past when parts of the Earth’s oceans were depleted of oxygen—devastating marine communities. These regions of low oxygen prevented scavengers from tearing apart the carcasses of dead marine creatures, allowing these organisms and their soft tissues to be preserved.

The Ya Ha Tinda fossils represent the first marine Early Jurassic Konservat Lagerstätte known in North America and is the only site in North America to preserve these soft-bodied creatures. Dr. Martindale and her team will be able to compare it with the three sites in Europe. This will help us understand the distribution of sea life millions of years ago when there was just one large continent.


All of these specimens give us a deeper insight into life in Alberta millions of years ago and reflect the wide diversity of ancient life and current palaeontological research. For a full list of specimens please download the Fossils in Focus Fact Sheet 2017.



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