Discussing Dinos at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Jordan Mallon in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery.

Ready and willing to answer your burning dinosaur questions!

One Saturday this past December, I had the fortune of taking part in a Meet the Scientist event at the Canadian Museum of Nature. The plan was simple: bring some of my favourite dinosaur fossils to the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery to show off, and strike up a conversation with visitors about dinosaur palaeontology. I was asked many great questions about dinosaur fossils, some of which I thought I would share here.

1) Where are the fossils from?
Most of the dinosaur fossils that I brought—and most of those on display in the gallery—were collected in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The most prolific collecting team in these parts was the Sternberg family of fossil hunters (a father and his three sons), who spent most of their summers early last century digging up dinosaurs along the Red Deer River in Alberta. In fact, 2012 marked the 100-year anniversary of the Sternbergs’ first foray into the badlands of Alberta on behalf of the Canadian Museum of Nature!

2) How old are the fossils?
Most of the dinosaur fossils on display in the gallery are between 65 and 75 million years old. During this time, several dinosaur lineages disappear from the fossil record, including the centrosaurine horned dinosaurs (such as Styracosaurus) and lambeosaurine duck-billed dinosaurs (such as Hypacrosaurus).

A mounted Hypacrosaurus skeleton in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery.

Lambeosaurine duck-billed dinosaurs such as Hypacrosaurus (on the left) went extinct in Alberta before the great die-off 65 million years ago. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

This drop in diversity has led some to suggest that the dinosaurs were already going extinct by the time the infamous meteor struck Earth some 65 million years ago. Dating of these fossils is based on radiometric dating of the ancient volcanic ash beds where they’re found.

3) Are those fossils real?
The most common question I was asked was whether the bones I brought were real. This is always a difficult—even philosophical—question to answer. Technically, all the material was “real” in the sense of being tangible. But I think what the guests were really asking was whether the bones were genuine fossils or epoxy casts.

Yet even that’s a tricky question because, although I did have some original fossils with me, the casts themselves are replicas of original fossils, too. They’re not just fabrications, but exact copies of specimens in the collections or on display. It’s a subtle, but important, distinction.

A mounted Styracosaurus skeleton in the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery.

Visitors frequently asked whether the bones on display are real fossils. Most of the bones of this Styracosaurus (on the left) are real fossils. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Playing on peoples’ fascination with “the real thing”, I was happy to draw attention to the fact that most—up to 85%!—of the fossils displayed in the gallery are originals. The Canadian Museum of Nature is one of only a handful of museums in North America to display mostly original fossil material.

I therefore spent quite a bit of time during my Ph.D. degree in the museum displays, studying the dinosaur bones. If you ever see me in there again, feel free to ask me what I’m up to.

In all, I had a great time at the Meet the Scientist event. It’s always fun watching the kids’ faces light up when they see the dinosaurs, and I enjoy taking thoughtful questions from the adults. We’re planning on doing a few more of these in 2013, so please keep an eye on the museum’s various social media outlets and pay me a visit!

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