After Dinosaurs Die—Searching for Fossil Evidence

The museum’s dinosaur researcher, Dr. Jordan Mallon, is leading his first field expedition this June. Follow his three-week journey to southeastern Alberta in search of dinosaur remains. First up are the pre-trip preparations.

We rarely strike out into the field without some purpose or question that we hope to answer. I’m interested in learning about dinosaur taphonomy, which is the science of what happens to an organism after it dies but before it becomes fossilized. I have many questions that I would like answered: Why are dome-headed dinosaur skulls said to be so heavily abraded? Why are armoured dinosaur skeletons thought to be preferentially preserved upside-down? Are some dinosaurs preserved more often in river deposits than in flood plain deposits?

Jordan Mallon looking at exposed dinosaur skull.

Jordan Mallon examines the partial skull of a horned dinosaur stored in a plaster jacket in the museum’s collections. Image Pierre Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Answers to these questions are important if we want to understand how dinosaurs lived and what made them so successful. Research can be done in museum collections if the field notes provide enough information about a fossil’s preservation and geological context. But to get the most information, it’s best to venture into the badlands to collect the data firsthand.

View of fossil bones on shelves.

Part of the fossil collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I will be doing fieldwork along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River near Hilda, Alberta (about an hour’s drive northeast of Medicine Hat). This area has been prospected on and off over the years, and has recently yielded a massive bonebed of horned dinosaurs, comprised of bones from thousands of individuals. Joining me is museum collections technician Margaret Currie, who has had experience digging up Tyrannosaurus rex fossils in Montana. Also joining me on occasion will be Brian Rankin, a Ph.D. student from the University of Calgary, and Ben Borkovic, a fossil preparator from the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

A map of South Saskatchewan River near Hilda, Alberta.

A map of South Saskatchewan River near Hilda, Alberta

Much planning goes into an expedition like this. First and foremost, you need the right paperwork. Digging for dinosaurs in Alberta is illegal without a permit. In my case, I not only need a permit to dig, but I also need permits to access designated natural areas that are otherwise off limits to the public. Of course, it’s also important to get permission from any leaseholders whose land you might be accessing.

Then comes the packing. There’s a lot to remember: tents, cooking utensils, food, water, plaster, burlap, rock hammers, shovels, whisks, GPS, sunscreen, permits, maps…the list goes on. I can’t help but wonder if I’ve remembered everything. Thankfully, I’ll be working only an hour outside of Medicine Hat, so it shouldn’t be difficult to run into town if I forget anything.

Boxes and camping equipment laid out on floor.

Camping gear, food, field supplies…now the fieldwork can begin! Image Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I’ll have internet access on and off during the fieldwork, and I plan to keep everyone up-to-date with my fieldwork in future blog posts. Once on the ground, our first big stop will be to a historic quarry where Canada’s first dinosaur was discovered. So stay tuned and wish us luck!

This entry was posted in Fieldwork, Fossils, Research, Tools of the trade and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to After Dinosaurs Die—Searching for Fossil Evidence

  1. Pingback: Hunting a historic quarry for signs of Canada’s first dinosaur | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  2. Pingback: Dangers of the Badlands | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  3. Pingback: Les dangers des badlands | Le blogue du Musée canadien de la nature

  4. Pingback: Trenching a Turtle—Saving a Fossil for Study | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  5. Pingback: Bonebeds and dinosaur remains—three weeks of prospecting in Alberta | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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