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The discovery of the first feathered dinosaurs in 1998 irrevocably changed the perception of the physical appearance of dinosaurs. No longer the scaly reptiles of our imaginations, these animals were covered with feathers similar to birds. Since that first discovery, over 40 different species of dinosaurs are now known to have been covered with feathers and allow us to tackle the question: how did birds get their wings and learn to fly? Three main hypotheses have been proposed over the years to explain the origin of wings, all equally plausible and difficult to prove. However, the recent discovery of feathered ornithomimids in Alberta offers an unexpected alternative to explain why wings first evolved.

In his presentation, Dr. Therrien highlights these ornithomimid discoveries and explores their implications for the study of the evolution of wings.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum believes that science should be accessible for everyone to understand and engage with. This is why we are involved with the citizen science movement. Citizen science is the concept of having civilians work with professionals to collect and measure scientific data together. To engage people with palaeontology, there are several programs at the Museum that enable citizens to contribute to active scientific research.

Fossil Identification

One of the services the Museum offers to the public is fossil and rock identification. We provide an electronic form for people to submit, that includes photos and location information about the objects they encounter. Although more than 80% of discoveries can be identified from photographs alone, many turn out to be non-fossiliferous rocks or modern bone. Those that are fossils can often be identified in broad terms using the photographs. Dr. David Eberth, lead scientist for the Museum’s fossil identification process estimates that each year the Museum receives hundreds of reports from the public and follows up on 10–20 of the these with field investigations or by contacting appropriate researchers at scientific institutions across Canada. Among this smaller subset, four or five are eventually deemed significant enough to warrant further study by the Museum.

If you find something you think is a fossil, take a picture, note its location and contact us here. (Don’t move it! The original location is called the provenance and it’s very important). It could be one of our annual significant finds!

Encana Badlands Science Camp

The Encana Badlands Science Camp at the Royal Tyrrell Museum is a little bit different than most summer camps. There is no horseback riding or archery. There is, however, real palaeontological work.

The Museum has been running an educational camping program since 2005, but it was only in 2010 that campers began working with the Museum’s researchers, principally Dr. Don Brinkman, Director of Preservation and Research, and former Betsy Nicholls Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Mike Newbrey (now a palaeoichthyologist at Columbus State University).

Their first major project was sorting through Myledaphus (a Late Cretaceous guitarfish) teeth. Dr. Newbrey wanted to prove that both adults and juveniles were present at the site the teeth were from, but to do that, every single tooth had to be inspected. The campers were given this project and eventually helped Dr. Newbrey prove his hypothesis.

Myledaphus

A fossilized Myledaphus

While the campers sorted, Dr. Newbrey was doing a parallel experiment; testing to see how accurate the data was. The acceptable error rate for a project of this nature is 2-5%. How did the campers stack up? At a very competent 3% error rate, they were well within acceptable limits.

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Some of the campers sort fossils

Since then, the campers have prospected for fossils, helped in excavations, screenwashed and sorted fossil matrix, and have done more data collection. They have also helped in conservation efforts for Midland Provincial Park and began work on a cast of an Ornithomimus skeleton that they are hoping to donate to the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

It’s a win-win situation. The campers get valuable experience doing real scientific work and our researchers get solid data from extremely large projects.

This experience has had far-reaching benefits. Many campers who participated are now pursuing science degrees or degrees in science education. Some are already on the road to becoming palaeontologists themselves one day. In fact, former camper Greg Funston has just published a paper on Avimimus, in collaboration with the University of Alberta’s Dr. Philip Currie and our own Dr. David Eberth.

There are three kinds of Science Camp: Junior (for campers aged 9-12), Senior (for campers aged 13-16) and Family Camp (for adults and their children). You can find more information about Science Camp here.

Palaeo Project Edutours

camp-ins

With the success of Encana Badlands Science Camp, the Museum decided to extend the concept to targeted school groups. In 2012, the Palaeo Project was piloted with a group of high school students for a day, and the first Palaeo Project Edutour was delivered in October 2013.

The Palaeo Project Edutour is now a two-day session offered to targeted school groups, with participants sleeping over in the Museum. They are introduced to the fossil specimen, participate in a screenwashing exercise, taught how to identify microfossils, sort through fossil matrix, and then in the evening, they do data collection for real research projects. Their current project is measuring fossil crocodile teeth for Dr. Don Brinkman to understand the size-frequency distribution of crocodile teeth in vertebrate microfossil localities. The goal of this study is to use this information to draw inferences about growth rates in crocodiles. In previous years they have worked with gar fish scales and Myledaphus teeth.

crocodile

The students work in groups. They measure the fish scales but they also double-check each other’s results. In this way, the program is self-regulating. Through this hands-on work, the students not only learn about palaeontology but also about following the steps of the scientific method from hypothesis to data collection to conclusion.

One of the big challenges of the Edutours is finding willing students. Unlike in Science Camp, where all the campers are there because they are interested in palaeontology, classrooms have students with diverse interests. One of the most important and tricky aspects of planning a Palaeo Project Edutour is finding classes who will enjoy the work.

Although Palaeo Project Edutours have not been in operation as long as Science Camp has, the results so far have been promising.

Citizen science is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Scientists get much needed help quantifying and analyzing massive amounts of data, while participants learn about the scientific method, improve their critical thinking skills, and develop a stronger feeling of connection with scientific research. Successful citizen science projects prove that science truly is for everyone.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum is proud to be involved in the citizen science movement. For more information on getting involved with the Museum’s citizen science projects, visit tyrrellmuseum.com.

If you could ask a museum curator anything, what would you ask? How they got their job? What their favourite specimen is? The actor who should play them on TV? On September 14, 2016 curators around the world took to Twitter for #AskACurator Day to answer these questions. The Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Dr. François Therrien, Curator of Dinosaur Palaeoecology, was one of the participants. Did you miss the day itself? Here are Dr. Therrien’s answers (some even longer than the ones we posted on Twitter):

What’s your favourite dinosaur?

Ornithomimus, because it was the first feathered dinosaur discovered in North America and the specimens are in our collections.

What’s the oldest thing you have in your collection?

Oldest thing: In terms of fossils, we have stromatolites dating back to the Precambrian. In terms of rocks, I’m pretty sure we have rocks from the NWT that are among the oldest rocks known on Earth.

stromatolite

How do you make your museum accessible to people who don’t know much about the subject?

Our newest exhibit, Foundations, presents the basic scientific concepts required to understand palaeontology.

What’s one cool thing about being a curator that most people don’t know?

You get to go out in the field in search of fossils to fill gaps in the collections!

What’s the smallest fossil in your collection?

Fossil pollen grains.

 What’s your favourite item in your collection?

Dinosaur skeletons!

dino-hall-shot

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Our Foundations exhibit may have just opened, but the Royal Tyrrell Museum never rests in its quest to show visitors the most accurate palaeontology information in dynamic displays. In 2017, a new exhibit will replace Lords of the Land, a beautiful gallery that highlighted some of the Museum’s most remarkable theropod specimens.

Installed in 2007, Lords of the Land  was initially meant to be a simple update of an existing gallery that displayed a collection of western North American theropods (bipedal, mostly carnivores). However, the project quickly evolved into an experiment in displaying dinosaurs a different way and taking the opportunity to impress visitors with the awe and size of a fully mounted dinosaur early in their journey through the Museum.

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An Ornithomimus in the classic death pose, with neck bent backwards over the body.

It took about a year to go from initial conception to installation. Lords of the Land is a marked departure from the interpretive strategy of the rest of the Museum. Rather than the natural history lens used in the other galleries, Lords of the Land presents specimens as works of art. The background is dark, the specimens are in gilded frames or displayed on Tuscan columns, and, if you listen carefully, you can hear classical music playing in the background. This design choice was partially made to differentiate it from past exhibits in the space. Theropods had been displayed there before, but the gallery tended to feature steel and hard lines, playing off the idea that carnivores were tough and aggressive and giving a sharp, modern feel. The art gallery inspiration gave the space a different atmosphere.

There is another innovation in the gallery: labels for the visually impaired. Not only are the labels for every specimen in Lords of the Land also written in braille, the specimens themselves were 3D scanned and imprinted on the plaques, creating extremely detailed miniature versions.

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One of the braille labels

Designing the gallery had its challenges along the way. It was initially intended to be much darker than it is now, with the only lighting coming from below. However, while atmospheric, these low light levels made reading and navigating difficult so overhead lights were added in response to visitor needs

Mounting the three raptor skeletons on their columns was also a test for our exhibits staff. While placing the skeletons on pedestals was a way to both save space and add to the art gallery vibe, there was a risk that the pedestals would wobble and damage the specimens. The solution was to mount the raptors on a skinny pedestal encased in a large column covered in shock absorbers.  No easy task!

The specimens displayed in Lords of the Land are some of the most significant and visually impressive we had in our collection at the time, including this one:

1884 Albertosaurus find-cast

This skull of Albertosaurus sarcophagus was found by Joseph B. Tyrrell (our namesake!) in 1884. Tyrrell was not a palaeontologist but a geologist looking for coal deposits in the Red Deer valley when he discovered the skull, which turned out to be a new species, one which was eventually named for this province. The species is also a bit of a special one for the Museum – it’s the first dinosaur you see when you enter and the only fleshed out dinosaur in the entire Museum.

In addition to the Albertosaurus skull, we also have the holotype of Atrociraptor (“savage robber”) on display.

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Atrociraptor: Dinosaur or death metal band?

A holotype is an individual plant or animal that serves as the basis for the description of a species. In other words, it’s what other finds are compared to in order to identify them. The Royal Tyrrell Museum has more than 300 holotypes but, because they’re so incredibly valuable, most are kept in a special locked storage area.

Lords of the Land also features dinosaur trackways, ornithomimids, and Alberta raptors.

If this all sounds too interesting for words or you’ve been before and loved it, don’t despair! There’s still time to visit before it all comes down. And we promise that, while the new exhibit may be different, it will be just as amazing and have just as many cool specimens.

Lords of the Land closes in late fall 2016, with the new exhibit opening spring 2017.

foundations-Trex (2)

At the Royal Tyrrell Museum, we are equal parts excited and nervous because we just launched our first large-scale exhibit in over five years. The exhibit, Foundations, is about everything that is important to us as a science and natural history museum, from the very beginnings of planet Earth, to the evolution of life, to fossils and their journey from living beings and into our Museum collections. With its expansive scope and mix of specimens, hands-on activities, and technology, Foundations is another step in our continued commitment to studying and celebrating the history of life on Earth.

 

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The final session of the 2016 Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Speaker Series is a presentation by Jeff Zimmer, Fish and Wildlife Officer for the Drumheller district with Alberta Justice and Solicitor General on Thursday, April 28.

The recent sighting of a cougar near the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology this spring resulted in a lot of conversation in Drumheller about these misunderstood creatures. Often lumped in with their misbehaving cousins, bears, cougars have a bad reputation. In this presentation, Zimmer hopes to give people a better understanding of cougar behaviour and hopefully be less fearful of them. The cougar is Canada’s largest cat species.

Merely seeing a cougar does not mean you are in imminent danger. Cougars are generally shy and wary of humans, but are efficient hunters. They most often hunt at dusk, night, and dawn. Zimmer presents information on basic identification of a cougar’s habits and habitats, and then discusses how to prevent conflict and respond to an encounter.

Exoplanets are planets that exist outside of our solar system. The number of confirmed exoplanets is rapidly growing and now exceeds two thousand. An additional nearly 5,000 exoplanet candidates are awaiting confirmation in the NASA Exoplanet Archive. Most of these planets have been discovered by the NASA Kepler Mission, a space observatory launched by NASA specifically to discover Earth-size planets orbiting other stars. Smaller subsets of these planets are similar in size to the Earth and orbit in the (liquid water) Habitable Zones (HZ) of their host stars. It is estimated that about ten to fifteen percent of solar-type stars and about twenty to twenty-five percent of the more numerous cooler (red dwarf) stars host Earth-size HZ planets. These planets are of great interest because they have conditions roughly similar to Earth and therefore could be potentially habitable planets (PHPs).

In this talk, Dr. Edward Guinan, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, briefly discusses how these exoplanets are discovered; however, the main focus will be on the stellar and planet properties that appear necessary for life to form and develop on their surfaces. New missions and techniques to detect signatures of life (bio-signatures) on these planets are presented along with the feasibility of interstellar missions to nearby HZ exoplanets that could support life.

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