This is the first of of five blogs by Dr. Jordan Mallon profiling the contestant fossils featured in the museum’s Dino Idol contest. From February 16 to March 17, visit the museum and choose your favourite from among five dinosaurs, whose bones are sealed away in plaster field jackets.

Duck-billed dinosaurs (hadrosaurids) are some of the most common fossils in Alberta, but for some strange reason, their skeletons are often found headless. Presumably, when these animals died, their skull bones would disarticulate and wash away from the rest of the carcass, which was held together by its various ligaments. Our first specimen on offer for the Dino Idol contest, nicknamed Headrosaur, is an interesting exception: it’s a head without a body!

A large plaster field jacket rests on wooden platform on shelf.
The Headrosaur specimen on the shelves of the museum’s collections building in Gatineau, Quebec. The writing on the plaster jacket tells us that this specimen was the third to be collected by the team of Charles H. Sternberg in 1914. Image: Pierre Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The skull was found by Levi Sternberg in 1914, near what is now Dinosaur Provincial Park (“the Park”) in Alberta. There is very little information about what species this hadrosaurid might be. It appears to have been collected in a hurry during a very productive field season, and the field notes associated with this specimen aren’t very helpful.

Black-and-white landscape shot of badlands of Alberta.
A shot of the badlands of Alberta, where fossils such as Headrosaur were collected by the Sternberg family of fossil hunters. This photo was taken from prairie level and nicely illustrates the beautiful-yet-dangerous topology of the region. Image: Charlie H. Sternberg © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Headrosaur could be any number of duck-bills collected from the Park, including the hollow-crested lambeosaurines Corythosaurus, Lambeosaurus, or Parasaurolophus (of which we have a great example on display in the museum’s Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery), or the solid-crested hadrosaurines Brachylophosaurus, Gryposaurus or Prosaurolophus

Colour illustration drawing of dinosaur sitting up on two rear legs.
Headrosaur probably belongs to a flat-headed duck-billed dinosaur (hadrosaurine), like Gryposaurus depicted here. Illustration: Brett Booth © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Based on the dimensions of the field jacket, Headrosaur is probably a hadrosaurine because there doesn’t seem to be much room in the jacket for a large crest typical of lambeosaurines.

It’ll be interesting to find out what Headrosaur is. Hadrosaurines aren’t as diverse or abundant as lambeosaurines in the Park, so a new specimen is always welcome. I’m especially anxious to find out whether this specimen preserves any microscopic wear features on its teeth that might tell us something about what these animals ate.

Dinosaur skull in fossil gallery.
This fine cast of a Parasaurolophus skull is part of the museum’s Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery. Image: Laura Sutin © Canadian Museum of Nature.

And who knows? Maybe Headrosaur will prove to be something new to science! Only your votes can help us to know for sure, so please come visit the Canadian Museum of Nature starting February 16 to vote for your favourite Dino Idol contestant in person.

Next week, I’ll take a look at our second fossil contender for Dino Idol—the Mystery Jaw!