Jordan Mallon crouches behind a dinosaur bone embedded in rock.
During fieldwork in 2013, Jordan Mallon found this tibia in a hadrosaur bonebed along the South Saskatchewan River. He is returning to Alberta this year to find more fossils. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I write this while sitting on a plane, 38,000 feet above the earth. I’m on my way from Ottawa to Calgary to start my second field season as dinosaur palaeontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature. The next three weeks are sure to be filled their share of highs and lows, satisfaction and disappointment. I couldn’t be more excited!

For the first week of my trip, I’ll be doing some fieldwork in the foothills of the Rockies, about an hour’s drive northwest of Calgary. This might strike the keen observer as an odd place to look for dinosaurs, whose remains are most often found in deposits further east such as those in the better-known Dinosaur Provincial Park or on the outskirts of Drumheller. But that’s precisely the point!

Map of southern Alberta shows the two locations Jordan Mallon will explore to search for dinosaur fossils.
Dr. Jordan Mallon will be prospecting for dinosaur fossils at two areas in Alberta (indicated by pushpins): the foothills of the Rockies and along the South Saskatchewan River. Image: © 2014 Google Image Landsat.

Relatively little is known about dinosaurs from the foothills of Alberta, and I’m anxious to find out more. Are the dinosaurs preserved in the foothills the same species as those we find further east? How does species diversity compare between these two settings? Or what about the relative abundance of species?

Answers to these questions are no doubt going to be difficult to come by—dinosaur fossils are already known from the foothills, but they tend to be scrappy and not very abundant. This likely reflects a few things: (1) the remoteness and inaccessibility of fossil-bearing sites, (2) the lack of effort spent collecting, (3) preservational biases in the fossil record (i.e. a fossil is less likely to be preserved in a mountainous region with lots of erosion than in a lowland region with lots of sediment deposition) and (4) the possibility of a real biological signal (i.e. that dinos may have been naturally less abundant near the mountains than in the lowlands, which is why their remains tend to be more scrappy).

Backpack and rock pick lie on ground at fossil site overlooking the South Saskatchewan River.
A view of fossil sites along the South Saskatchewan River. Image: Jordan Mallon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

But I’ll be darned if I’m going to let those setbacks stop me! This work is being done in collaboration with Dr. Matthew Vavrek from the new Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum near Grande Prairie, Alberta.

For the second leg of my trip during the last two weeks of June, I will be joined by Canadian Museum of Nature palaeobiology collections assistant Margaret Currie and research assistant Scott Rufolo on the South Saskatchewan River. This is about an hour’s drive north of Medicine Hat. Margaret and I conducted fieldwork in this area last June, and I’m excited to get back there.

We found a number of interesting prospects that I hope to follow up with this year. These include a few duck-billed dinosaur bonebeds and disarticulated horned dinosaur skeletons. I also plan to do some more prospecting, in the hopes that we might find something really spectacular.

Jordan Mallon and Margaret Currie examine dinosaur fossils on table at the museum’s research facility.
At the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus, Jordan Mallon and Margaret Currie examine the cheek bone of a ceratopsian (horned dinosaur) collected during Alberta fieldwork in 2013. Also on the table is the lower jaw of a ceratopsian collected during the same expedition. Image: Dan Smythe © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I should add that I’m going to be tweeting the events of this year’s field season, so if you’re interested, please be sure to follow me at @Jordan_Mallon (hashtag #CMNPalaeo). I hope this will provide more insight into what we do as palaeontologists. So, join me and our research team in Alberta!