Come the spring, I’m always itching to return to the field. Canadian winters are long and dark, and as the season wanes, I begin to get restless. The feeling was especially strong this winter, being trapped as I was. Like so many others, I continued to work from home in my windowless basement office as the pandemic raged on. 

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has affected the Museum’s bottom line, and so our research budgets were slashed. Still, I count myself lucky that I was able to eke out a brief field season this past August and return to my familiar stomping grounds in Saskatchewan and Alberta with my graduate students and new Curator of Palaeobiology, Dr. Scott Rufolo. Our plans were scaled back this year—there was little time to excavate much of anything—and so the focus was on documenting old dinosaur quarries. 

I’ve talked about relocating old quarries before, but I’ll repeat the importance of such work. Roughly 50-plus years ago, when digging up dinosaurs, palaeontologists were primarily interested in acquiring skeletons for display purposes. As a result, little attention was given to collecting the types of data that we deem important today for reconstructing the life of an extinct animal. 

What information is often missing from these early records? Information like the location of the skeleton within the rock column, the type of rock the skeleton was preserved in and the types of microfossils—perhaps plants or small invertebrates—that occurred with it. It could be argued that, collectively, these types of data provides more information about the ecology and evolution of a dinosaur than the skeleton itself! 

With these considerations in mind, we set out to relocate several scientifically important sites. In Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, we documented the quarry where famed dinosaur hunter Charles M. Sternberg collected the holotype skeleton of “Thespesius saskatchewanensis” (now called Edmontosaurus annectens) in 1921. 

Two images of a dinosaur quarry with an inset of a dinosaur skull.
The holotype quarry of “Thespesius saskatchewanensis” as it looked in 1921 (top) and as it appears today (bottom). Student Marissa Livius appears in the bottom photo. Inset: Holotype skull of “Thespesius saskatchewanensis” (catalogue number: CMNFV 8509). Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

We also visited the site where the late Dr. Dale Russell found the world’s first baby pachycephalosaur skeleton in 1973. 

Two scientists working in the field.
Yours truly (left) and student Bryan Moore (right) measure stratigraphic section using a Jacob’s staff at the site of a 1973 baby pachycephalosaur discovery. The data we collected will allow us to locate the position of the fossil material within the geological layers. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature 

We also went to Dry Island Buffalo Jump in Alberta to record the quarry from which Sternberg collected a massive Triceratops skull in 1946. In between these and other site visits, we found plenty of cool little fossils and some exciting prospects for next year.

Two images of a dinosaur quarry with an inset of a dinosaur skull.
Dr. François Therrien (Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology) joined us one day to help relocate the site of Sternberg’s 1946 Triceratops discovery in Alberta (1946 photo at top). In the 2021 photo (bottom), note the metal stake next to him marking the location of the quarry. Insert: Holotype skull of “Triceratops albertensis” (catalogue number: CMNFV 8862). Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature 

The data we collected this summer will contribute to the ongoing thesis work of some of my graduate students, and to my own studies as well. After all, as the leaves start to change colour, I’m reminded that winter is coming and that I’ll be in need of new research to tide me over until next year…