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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.

Montanoolithus_04_201409181406_1800

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.

When companies (or anyone, for that matter) encounter fossils while excavating, the Alberta Historical Resources Act requires them to report the find to Alberta Culture via the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. It is then up to us to determine what has been found, and how to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

Typically, once or twice a year, the Museum gets a report of big fossils found during excavation activities somewhere in Alberta. Over the past few years we have received calls about mosasaurs and plesiosaurs found in southern Alberta as well as plesiosaurs and a dinosaur in the Fort McMurray area.

As you may have seen in the news over the past few months, the Museum was involved in the recovery of a dinosaur found by a pipeline construction crew near Spirit River, Alta. At nearly the same time, a mosasaur (a marine reptile) skeleton was being excavated from the Korite ammolite mine in southern Alberta. And even more recently, we received a call about a dinosaur found by a crew digging a sewer line in Leduc, Alta. With all these discoveries, and others, I am often asked: what happens when the Royal Tyrrell Museum gets reports about big fossils found by developers?

The process begins as soon as the Resource Management Program receives a phone call or an email from a developer informing us that they have encountered a fossil. This initial contact is usually followed up by a request from us for photographs of the fossil. Once we have confirmed that the find really is a fossil, we jump into action.

Within a day or so of the initial call we send out a small team (usually one to three people) to the site to evaluate the fossil, to determine what equipment and people will be needed to extract it, and to work with the company to develop a plan that will allow us to remove the fossil as quickly, and with as little disruption, as possible.

Once the team has completed its initial assessment of the fossil and started the excavation process we send out a bigger team (usually two to four people but sometimes six or more) of technicians with all the necessary tools and materials to do the job quickly and safely. The time it takes to complete the excavation depends on the nature of the fossil (its size, the type of rock in which it is preserved, its location, etc.), the weather, and many other factors. We understand that time is money for the companies that encounter these fossils and with the help of their heavy machines we have always been able to get the fossils out of the ground and out of their way a lot faster than we would at a more traditional style excavation.

The fossils are then loaded onto a truck and transported to the Royal Tyrrell Museum where they will be safely stored until they can be prepared, studied, and then possibly be put on display.

We often hear that companies are afraid that they will get shut down if they report fossils to us, but that has never happened. We make it a priority to make sure we get in and get the fossil out as quickly as possible to minimize the impact on the company. In most cases, the company is able to continue working around us, or in another part of the excavation site while we collect the specimen. Working together we have been able to preserve some amazing aspects of Alberta’s ancient past.

-Dan Spivak, Head, Resource Management Program

When fossils were discovered at the Suncor Energy mine, employees halted work and sent photos to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Scientists flew to Fort McMurray to investigate the next day and were amazed to find the rare remains of a 110-million-year-old ankylosaur, an armoured dinosaur.

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