Alberta dinosaur researchers solve the case of the missing skull

A headless dinosaur skeleton has finally been reunited with its skull, thanks to University of Alberta researchers who cracked the case using clues found in newspaper clippings that date back nearly 100 years.

The Corythosaurus skeleton has been a tourist attraction at Dinosaur Provincial Park, about 50 kilometres northeast of Brooks, Alta., since it was unearthed in 1992.

But the location of the skull remained a mystery.

Dismembered fossils are actually quite common, says graduate student Katherine Bramble, who worked on the project.

"In the early days of dinosaur hunting and exploration, explorers only took impressive and exciting specimens for their collections, such as skulls, tail spines and claws," Bramble said. "Now, it's common for paleontologists to come across specimens in the field without their skulls.

"One institution will have one part of a skeleton. Years later, another will collect another part of a skeleton that could belong to the same animal."

It wasn't until 2011 that a group of scientists noticed old newspaper clippings in the debris around the 1992 dig site, and began to wonder whether the skeleton could be related to a skull originally unearthed by paleontologist George Sternberg in 1920.

Using anatomical measurements, the researchers determined the skeleton was a perfect match for the skull, which had been hiding in plain sight in the University of Alberta's own paleontology museum.

Bramble likened the saga to an episode of "Cretaceous CSI," and noted that the work has resulted in a specimen that remains a fine example of the species.

"It's a duck-billed dinosaur, it's a plant eating dinosaur. I like to say it's like Ducky from Land Before Time," she said with a chuckle.

"It definitely starts an interesting process, having skeletons and skulls reunited, because this is a common practice from the dinosaur hunting days, when they only took the most interesting looking parts."

The entire tale is explained in detail in a paper recently published in Cretaceous Research.

Both skull and skeleton now reside at the University of Alberta.

"This is just a beginning of a process for determining if important fossils like this can be reunited," said Bramble. "It's becoming more and more common."