The Discovery of Canada’s First Known Meat-Eating Dinosaur

On this day in 1884, Canada’s first known meat-eating dinosaur was discovered. Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a 26-year-old geologist working for the Geological Survey of Canada, happened across an impressive dinosaur skull while searching for coal deposits in the Red Deer River valley area.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell.

Joseph Burr Tyrrell.

After joining the Geological Survey of Canada in 1881, Tyrrell discovered a significant coal seam near the town of Fernie, British Columbia. To reward this success, he was sent to southern Alberta to lead a team of researchers to explore a large district north of the Bow River.

Tyrrell and his team travelled south of Red Deer by canoe along the Red Deer River. They discovered extensive coal deposits. These deposits became Canada’s largest base for domestic coal mining and fuelled the economy until the discovery of oil and gas in Leduc in 1947.

Tyrrell (far left) and members of his survey crew.

Tyrrell (far left) and members of his survey crew.

Tyrrell happened upon the 70-million-year-old dinosaur skull, the first of its species ever found, just a few kilometres from where the Royal Tyrrell Museum now stands. Although he wasn’t a palaeontologist, Tyrrell realized his discovery was significant.

After carefully removing the skull from its resting place, he shipped it to Ottawa, where it eventually ended up at the National Museum of Natural Sciences. From there, the skull made its way to Professor Edward Drinker Cope at the Philadelphia Academy of Science, where it was identified as Laelaps incrassatus.

The skull on display.

The skull on display.

Years later, the skull was again examined and scientifically described—this time by American Museum of Natural History palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn. It was renamed Albertosaurus sarcophagus (“flesh-eating lizard from Alberta”) in 1905, the same year Alberta become a province.

Joseph Tyrrell left the Geological Survey in 1898 and moved to Dawson City, where he became a mining consultant. He moved back to Ontario in 1906 where he continued consulting until 1924. He died at his home in Toronto at the age of 98.

Eventually, Alberta became known for its rich fossil resources, and palaeontologists from the United States and Canada came in droves, eager to claim the finest specimens for their museums. The period from 1910 – 1917 later became known as the “Great Dinosaur Rush.”

The town of Drumheller in 1916. The discovery of coal and fossils in the valley shaped the economic growth of the town.

The town of Drumheller in 1916. The discovery of coal and fossils in the valley shaped the economic growth of the town.

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