From Discovery to Display: The Journey of the Castle River Hadrosaur

The Royal Tyrrell Museum collects thousands of fossils each year through fieldwork and reported finds by members of the public. But what exactly happens when a fossil is discovered? That answer is different for every specimen, but all fossils the Museum collects eventually end up either on display, or in the collection for further research and conservation. When Fossils in Focus reopened on October 6, a specimen returned to display for the second time. The Castle River hadrosaur has had a remarkable journey since its discovery in 2014. These photos document its travels through the Museum over the past three years.


The location in the Castle River where the specimen was found. Note the block in the bottom right corner.

Dislodged during the devastating 2013 flood in Alberta, this specimen was discovered in the Castle River in southwestern Alberta in August 2014 by the Cappon family while they were fishing. The eldest son spotted a huge sandstone boulder in the middle of the river with what looked like a tire track inside it. Close inspection revealed it might be fossils entombed in the rock and the family reported their find to the Museum. Dr. Donald Henderson and the flood mitigation crew were dispatched to investigate and confirmed it contained the fossilized remains of a hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur).


The specimen in the Castle River. The fossil is a dark brown colour and the rock surrounding it is a light grey.


Our field crew preparing the specimen to be airlifted out of the river.

The rounded and smoothed edges of the block are due to water erosion and are signs of the specimen being moved, making it reasonable to think the boulder was dislodged from a section of river bank far upstream by the unusually high river flow rates and levels during the summer of 2013. Since this specimen is older than other hadrosaur fossils found in southern Alberta, and comes from an area without prior dinosaur discoveries, it is speculated that it could represent a new species.

The specimen needed to be quickly removed to prevent further erosion from being tumbled in a river full of cobbles and boulders. Due to the size and weight of the block, and its precarious location in the middle of the river, the specimen needed to be airlifted by helicopter. Our field crew used pry bars to shift the block and roll it onto netting. It was then lifted out of the river by helicopter and placed on a truck bed before being transported back to the Museum.


The Castle River hadrosaur spent a brief time in Unprepared Collections before going on display in Fossils in Focus in 2015.


The Cappon family with the Castle River hadrosaur.

The first place a fossil stops when it arrives at the Museum is Unprepared Collections where it receives an accession number unique to our collection to identify it. Unprepared Collections is where field jackets are stored while waiting to be worked on. Fossils can be stored here for a short period of time before being moved to the Prep Lab, or for years. Deciding when a jacket is worked on depends on its scientific significance, the amount of time it will take to prepare, the space needed in the Lab, on-going projects, research concerns, and gallery display plans. The Castle River hadrosaur was briefly stored here before being moved to Fossils in Focus in 2015.


The Castle River hadrosaur on display in Fossils in Focus in 2015.

Due to its scientific importance and stunning nature, the Castle River hadrosaur was placed on display with the opening of Fossils in Focus in 2015. It is rare to find a dinosaur erratic that was transported in a large block to another location. Since hadrosaurs have not been previously found in the Castle River area, palaeontologists speculated whether it is a new species that was transported there by water, or glacial movement. Whether this is a new or previously identified species, this specimen will expand knowledge of palaeobiogeography (the geographical distribution of ancient plants and animals) as hadrosaurs are rarely found in southwestern Alberta.


Museum technician using a diamond encrusted chainsaw to remove large areas of extra matrix from the specimen.


Museum technician using a chisel and hammer to remove matrix from the specimen.

When the specimens on display in Fossils in Focus changed in 2016, the Castle River hadrosaur was taken to the Preparation Lab to be prepared for research. Matrix needed to be removed for palaeontologists to be able to study the skull and identify the species. A diamond encrusted chainsaw was used to remove large pieces of rock so the specimen could be moved more easily and flipped over. Smaller tools, such as air scribes, chisels and hammers, were then used to remove the rest of the matrix.


Prepared Collections.


The Castle River hadrosaur sitting in Prepared Collections shortly before its return to Fossils in Focus.

Once a specimen is prepared and is not going on display in the galleries, it is stored in the Museum’s collection for conservation and research. Only half of one per cent of the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s collection is on display at any given time. The rest are stored in the research collection, which contains over 160,000 fossil vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and geological specimens.


The Castle River hadrosaur on display next to the Spirit River hadrosaur in Fossils in Focus.

With the 2017 reopening of Fossils in Focus, the Castle River hadrosaur went on display once again, this time along with another unidentified hadrosaur skull from Spirit River. Dr. Donald Henderson and Dr. Caleb Brown will be studying the Castle River hadrosaur in the future to determine whether it is a new or previously known species by comparing it to the Spirit River hadrosaur and other known specimens.


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