Fossils can be found all along the Red Willow River, but a recent find may lead to new knowledge about dinosaurs that roamed the area over 72 million years ago.
A group of paleontologists from the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum and the University of Alberta met up to remove a portion of rock from the river bed using a helicopter on Thursday.
About two years ago, Matthew Vavrek, a local paleontologist, was exploring the area when a grad student found bone sticking out of the side of a rock they were sitting on.
Vavrek then noticed that there was much more to the rock.
“He didn’t notice the big piece of fossil that he was sitting on mostly because everything around here gets covered with mud and sand so quickly from the river, so it was kind of obscure, but then we started brushing off a little bit of that dirt and stuff and realized the fossil was a lot bigger,” said Vavrek.
After some cleaning of the rock, and speculation of what it could be, they determined it was the piece of the skull of a horned dinosaur.
“This is sitting in the Red Willow River, it’s a different part of what we call the Wapiti formation, which is the geological area around here that the specimens are coming out of, so that could well be something other than pachyrhinosaurus,” said Corwin Sullivan, associate professor at the UofA and curator of the Philip J Currie Dinosaur Museum.
“Even if it is pachyrhinosaurus it’s a new occurrence of pachyrhinosaurus in a different part of the Wapiti formation.”
Preparing the fossil to be moved proved to have its own difficulties.
U of A paleontologists prepared the fossil by cutting the rock around it and using pry bars and logs to place the large rock into a net that would be carried by helicopter.
The first attempt was unsuccessful as the rock was too heavy, and the helicopter could not lift it.
“We’d casually estimated the weight of the part of the rock that we’d broken off at about 453.6 kg, and the helicopter could lift 816.5 kg, so we figured we were fine,” said Sullivan, but after some new calculations, it turned out it was more like 1180 kg.
They then began to trim more of the rock off and added a plaster jacket to protect the exposed fossil.
In a second attempt on Thursday, they successfully lifted the fossil from the river valley with a helicopter and placed it on a truck trailer.
It will be stored at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum and then will be transported to the U of A in a few weeks.
Once there, Robin Sissons, a paleontological technician at the U of A, will begin the complex preparation of removing rock from the fossil.
Robin said rock from the Grande Prairie area is generally really hard, so if she were only working on this piece, it would take anywhere from six to eight months to complete.
She is also working on many other specimens from the area as well.
“I’ll also be working on some of the other spectacular things that we’ve been finding up here; it’ll probably take closer to a year or more just because there’s other stuff that we need to do at the same time,” she said.
“What we’re trying to do is to tie the research in the area more closely with the museum,” said Linden Roberts, executive director at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum.
As this specimen is worked on at the U of A, it will be documented and shared at the museum, said Roberts.
Meanwhile, the museum is expecting the return of a fossil from the U of A in the new year that was found in the Pipestone area in 2019.
Soon, the museum will begin displaying large footprints that were discovered earlier in the year near the Wapiti River.
“I think what’s exciting is as we develop programs that allow people to understand the process of paleontology, we are equally adding exhibits that illustrate the process of paleontology,” said Roberts.
“Unlike most museums where you go, and you look, and you see the end result of work, (our) visitors will get a chance to both participate in the work and understand what it’s like to be a paleontologist and use the clues in the region to put together a full understanding of the ecology 70 million years ago.”
The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum supports the U of A in its work in the region by helping fund the research in the area and providing some aid when needed with vehicles or workers.
The U of A also runs the prep lab in the museum, said Roberts.
The area is becoming one of more interest to paleontologists globally who are bringing names like National Geographic to the area as well, said Roberts.
Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Town & Country News