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The discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of hominin (the group encompassing modern humans, extinct human species, and all close human ancestors) was announced in September 2015. Found in a deep, nearly inaccessible cave system, this was the largest concentration of hominin bones ever found in Africa. The unusual distribution of bones suggested symbolic behaviour (e.g., deliberate placement by other H. naledi). The find attracted global media attention, including a feature in National Geographic. This discovery had such an impact that it was easily identified as one of the top 10 science discoveries of 2015 by numerous news outlets. The deposits, however, remain undated, leaving their evolutionary significance uncertain – were they a direct human ancestor or another branch on the family tree?

In the last talk of the 2017 Speaker Series, Dr. Eric Roberts, Associate Professor and Head of Geosciences, James Cook University, Queensland, Australia, presents an overview of the discovery of the site and discusses the efforts that went into unravelling the complex geological context of the cave system. He finishes with an overview of his team’s efforts and progress over the last two years at dating the fossils and refining our understanding of this important new hominin locality.

May 12, 2017

A new exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology welcomes Albertans to discover spectacular fossil finds from across the province.

As one of the best places in the world for fossil preservation and discovery, Alberta is an exciting window into prehistoric life. The museum’s new exhibit, Grounds for Discovery, showcases some of the most significant fossils that have been discovered through industrial work.

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Thousands of cubic metres of soil, gravel, and bedrock are excavated in Alberta every year through road construction, urban development, mining and other industrial activity. When fossils are exposed during these activities, Royal Tyrrell Museum scientists and industrial workers cooperate to safely excavate and protect Alberta’s fossils for scientific study and display.

Each discovery that has been reported and excavated contributes to global research.

“The new Grounds for Discovery exhibit shows visitors first-hand the positive outcomes of reporting fossil discoveries and working with industry. Through personal stories and exceptional specimens, the Royal Tyrrell Museum shows us once again why it is a premier palaeontological research centre and a world-class tourist attraction in this province.”
– Ricardo Miranda, Minister of Culture and Tourism

The centrepiece of the exhibit is a new species of dinosaur discovered at the Suncor Millennium Mine near Fort McMurray in 2011.

A Suncor employee spotted something unusual while excavating in the mine. Little did he know that this would turn out to be one of the most significant dinosaur discoveries in the world.

This new species of nodosaur (armoured dinosaur) is the oldest dinosaur known from Alberta – approximately 112 million years old – and is the best preserved armoured dinosaur ever found.

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Since its discovery, the public have been able to share in the nodosaur’s journey by watching its painstaking preparation by technicians through the lab gallery window. For the first time, all the pieces have been put together so it can finally share its story.

Research on this extraordinary nodosaur was supported through the National Geographic Society and is being featured in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine, available online today and on print newsstands on May 30. The magazine feature includes an interactive featuring a 3D model of the nodosaur, both how it looked and lived in its day, and how it came to be fossilized for millions of years before its discovery.

Other exceptional finds highlighted in the exhibit include a new genus and species of a pantodont (a rare early mammal) found during road construction near Red Deer, and a mosasaur found at the Korite Mine in southern Alberta whose spectacular preservation sheds light on marine reptile behaviour.

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“Staff at the Royal Tyrrell Museum and our colleagues at the Royal Alberta Museum have been working for several decades to educate industry on the importance of preserving and protecting fossils uncovered by industrial activities. This exhibit highlights some of the results of this collaborative approach to heritage preservation.”
– Andrew Neuman executive director, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology

 

Grounds for Discovery Fact Sheet

About The Museum Fact Sheet

Media inquiries:

John Archer
john.archer@gov.ab.ca
587-985-4252
Acting Press Secretary
Alberta Culture and Tourism

Carrie-Ann Lunde
Head, Marketing & Public Relations
Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology
carrie.lunde@gov.ab.ca
403-820-6208

Adaptive radiation is when a group of animals evolve into different forms to fill different roles in their environment. In his talk, Dr. Ben Evans, McMaster University, provides evidence for an example of an adaptive radiation; the fanged frogs of Southeast Asia. Different species of fanged frogs have unique characteristics, including body size and reproductive strategy that allow them to co-exist in the same habitat. Through comparison to frogs in the Philippines and other species of animals, Evans discusses how fanged frogs underwent rapid speciation on Sulawesi, and how this fast-paced evolution led to remarkable changes. He also explains the broader context of fanged frog evolution for conservation and evolutionary studies.

 

The actinopterygians, or ray-finned fishes, are a substantial and significant component of modern vertebrate (animals with backbones) diversity. Ray-finned fishes are bony and have paired fins that are supported by rays (the actinosts) that insert directly in the body. Examples of modern ray-finned fishes include trout, eels, and bettas. Despite their prevalence today, the early evolution of this group is poorly understood compared to other major groups, driven by a lack of informative fossil data.

In his talk, Conrad Wilson explains how recent work on Early Carboniferous fossil sites from Nova Scotia and around the world provide new insight into the evolution of this group and how the development of the modern vertebrates may have been influenced by the mass extinction at the end of the Devonian Period (419 – 359 million years ago).

Mosasaurs were large, flipper-bearing swimming lizards from the age of the last dinosaurs, about 100–66 million years ago. Typically reaching the size of a pickup truck in length—and some nearly twice as long—over 70 mosasaur species are reported today based on the fossils collected from all over the world. Out of this highly diverse assemblage, halisaurine mosasaurs were small and seemed less well adapted to life in water since they lacked the well-developed flippers and tail fin of their larger contemporaries. Yet these small mosasaurs became increasingly more common in the fossil record towards the end of the Cretaceous, indicating their evolutionary success alongside their larger, fast-swimming cousins.

In his talk, Dr. Takuya Konishi, from the University of Cincinnati, explains why a recently discovered skull from Japan sheds new light on halisaurine mosasaurs’ potential survival strategy: that halisaurines evolved a pair of large, forward-facing eyes that would have increased their ability to see in the dark, allowing them to hunt at night.

Alberta is a great place for a dinosaur palaeontologist, with plenty of preserved skeletons and some of the best evidence for dinosaurs in the world.

However, in the Willow Creek Formation of southwestern Alberta, which records the last few million years before the extinction of dinosaurs, only three kinds of dinosaur skeletons have been found: Tyrannosaurus rex, an undetermined hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur), and an undetermined leptoceratopsid (small horned dinosaur). Were those the only dinosaurs living here during that time? Unlikely, but how do we know what dinosaurs were present if their skeletons weren’t preserved?

Unlike many geological formations in Alberta, dinosaur eggshells are quite common in the Willow Creek Formation. The ancient soils (a.k.a. paleosols) present in the formation suggest that conditions were arid to semi-arid at the time, which led to excellent preservation of dinosaur eggshell. Like skeletons, eggshells tend to be distinctive between the various kinds of dinosaurs and can be used to identify what dinosaurs were present.

A new scientific article by our Curator of Dinosaur Palaeoecology, François Therrien, in collaboration with Darla K. Zelenitsky, Kohei Tanaka, Philip J. Currie, and Christopher L. DeBuhr, presents an analysis of eggshells discovered in the Willow Creek Formation. The team inspected hundreds of dinosaur eggshells recovered from several sites in southwestern Alberta. They were able to determine that the eggshell fragments were produced by at least seven different types of dinosaurs: two ornithopods (a group of bipedal, herbivorous dinosaurs, including hadrosaurs) and five small theropods, including oviraptorosaurs, troodontids, and dromaeosaurs (colloquially, raptors). Because researchers frequently cannot correlate an eggshell with a specific species unless it is associated with a parent or a baby inside the egg, eggshells are given their own species names, in parallel to the way skeletons are named. These are called ootaxa.

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Montanoolithus eggshell, belonging to a small theropod, was discovered in southwestern Alberta. Art by Julius T. Csotonyi.

This research triples the known dinosaur diversity of the Willow Creek Formation, from three species based on skeletons only, to at least nine known from skeletons and eggshells. In addition, it extends the known temporal range of some of the ootaxa to 10 million years and gives a better sense of the ancient ecosystem in southwestern Alberta at the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs.

The article, titled “Latest Cretaceous eggshell assemblage from the Willow Creek Formation (upper Maastrichtian – lower Paleocene) of Alberta, Canada, reveals higher dinosaur diversity than represented by skeletal remains,” was published in the January 2017 issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Science.

With the cold weather and the short days, it’s safe to say that most people are missing summer. For our palaeontologists though, the winter months are an important part of the research process. In summer, they go out in the field to dig up new specimens. Winter is the time for analyzing what they’ve collected, writing it up, and perhaps even publishing a paper on a new discovery. We’ve asked our palaeontologists how they spent last summer and, in this two part series, they summarize the work they accomplished.

David Eberth, Research Scientist, Sedimentary Geology and Palaeoecology

During the 2016 field season, I was able to make exciting new adjustments to the geologic time scale for Alberta. For the past 31 years, I have been involved in assessing the ages of bentonites that are associated with Alberta’s dinosaurs.  Bentonites are ancient volcanic ash and glass deposits that have been geologically altered by burial pressure and temperature after they were exploded from volcanoes. Given the mineral crystals they contain formed at the time of eruption and deposition, the tiny amounts of radioactive isotopes they contain can be analyzed to assess the age of sediments and fossils they were deposited with.

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Dry bentonite from Midland Provincial Park

Hunting for bentonites takes patience and requires lots of digging and hauling. A sample that looks good at the surface may turn out to be a bust once I dig more deeply into the rock. In the field, I examine samples with a hand lens, but samples must also be examined in much greater detail in the laboratory using a microscope. As it takes lots of effort to get to a location, I often collect a potential sample in bulk before returning to the lab. A bulk sample usually means six large zip-lock bags of rock that weigh about as much as two bowling balls.

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Collecting samples is hard work!

Over the years there have been incredible advances in the science of radioisotopic dating. When I started out studying the ages of bentonites in the late 1980s, I was limited to using potassium-argon, and argon40/argon39 dating, which provided accuracy at the level of plus-or-minus 1 million years. Such results allowed me to compare the approximate ages of dinosaur occurrences from different places around the world, but prevented me from making detailed comparisons. More recently I have turned to a revolutionary new technique called uranium lead chemical abrasion thermal induction mass spectrometry (U-Pb CA-TIMS dating, for short). This technique uses zircon crystals that occur in the bentonites and provides very high resolution ages for Alberta’s dinosaurs — plus-or-minus 30,000 years.  For dinosaurs that are about 70 million years old, such accuracy and resolution is phenomenal. Today’s results are more than 20 times more accurate and precise than when I began studying bentonites in the 1980s. Calibrating the age of Alberta’s dinosaurs with such high precision has had profound scientific significance on our research at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology; we can assess patterns of dinosaur evolution, migration, and response to changes in climate and sea-level around the world. With so much new technology available, it’s an exciting time to be studying dinosaurs!

Prior to this summer, my work with CA-TIMS has focused on recalibrating the ages of the rocks and fossils at Dinosaur Provincial Park. Today we know that the dinosaurs at the Park range in age from 76.69 million years to 74.26 million years. This past summer, I spent many hours hunting for datable bentonites in the Horseshoe Canyon Formation in the Drumheller area. Six bentonites were ultimately targeted and will be dated this year.

Dennis Braman, Research Scientist, Palynology

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Callum Creek area

While not much field work happened this summer, the main focus was trying to unravel the biostratigraphy of the vertebrate localities along the Oldman River. Biostratigraphy is the use of fossils to date rock formations – if you know approximately when a plant or animal lived from other sites, you know approximately the age of any rock that contains them. I collected samples from a tributary of the Oldman River near Callum Creek with poor results, a section along the Crowsnest River that indicated the Willow Creek Formation is younger than that exposed along the Oldman River, and a section north of Pierce, Alberta, again to try to work out the biostratigraphy as it relates to the section along the Oldman River west of the Porcupine Hills. I have also been doing in-house work trying to determine the ages of a number of other vertebrate localities with the samples provided by other researchers.

Don Brinkman, Head of Preservation and Research, and James Gardener, Curator of Palaeoherpetology

Vertebrate microfossil localities are accumulations of smaller-sized (about 5 cm and less) fossilized bones, teeth, scales, and other hard body parts from vertebrates (animals with backbones). These fossil localities typically occur in fine-grained sedimentary rocks that were deposited in ancient rivers and ponds and on adjacent, low lying areas such as floodplains. The preserved fossils generally represent a mixture of aquatic, semi-aquatic, and terrestrial animals that lived within a localized area and during a restricted interval of time (tens to hundreds of years).  Although the fossils themselves are small, animals of different body sizes are routinely represented. For example, tiny jaws and vertebrae from small animals, such as frogs and minnow-sized fish, may be preserved along with thumb-sized teeth and toe bones from large dinosaurs.

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A salamander vertebra in situ

Fossils from vertebrate microfossil localities are important for providing information about the different kinds of animals represented at the localities and insights into ancient ecosystems. In fact, much of what we know about smaller- and medium-sized animals (less than 75 kilograms) during the last 15 million years of the Late Cretaceous in Alberta is founded on fossils from vertebrate microfossil localities.

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The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology has long been interested in locating, collecting, and studying vertebrate microfossil localities (for further details on that and other research programs at the Museum, see the 2015 paper entitled “Introduction to the Special Issue commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, with a summary of the Museum’s early history and its research contributions,” available for free download). A region of particular focus for the Museum has been the richly fossiliferous Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta. There, several dozens of vertebrate microfossil localities have been identified through an 85 metre sequence of rocks that spans about two million years of time during the latter part of the Late Cretaceous.

During the 2016 field season, Drs. Don Brinkman and Jim Gardner re-located and photo documented 20 vertebrate microfossil localities in Dinosaur Provincial Park. This survey was a first step in preparing to re-sample and study selected vertebrate microfossil localities of interest to their respective research agendas.

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Dr. Don Brinkman poses at one of the sites

At the end of the 2016 field season, Museum staff sampled the new eggshell locality. This locality is interesting because it preserves abundant and well-preserved bones of teleost fish and amphibians, groups of particular interest to Brinkman and Gardner, respectively.  It also was the first vertebrate microfossil locality that Brinkman found when he began his work in 1985. Nearly 600 kilograms of fossiliferous matrix were collected from the new eggshell locality and transported to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. Over the winter, the matrix will be washed through fine screens to recover the fossils.  We look forward to seeing what treasures might be revealed.

Join us for part two of this series, where we share what our mammologist and dinosaur palaeontologists were up to last summer!

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