Summerasaurus Part I: Digging for Dinos

Posted: July 19, 2011 - 09:45 , by royal

Mark Farmer recently returned from an expedition to the far end of southern Alberta with Dr. David Evans, Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the ROM, in search of dinosaurs! Join us over the course of the next month as Mark and Dr. Evans put up their notes from the field, detailing discoveries, how dinosaurs are found and excavated, life in the field and more.

The temperature in the quarry has reached 33 degrees Celsius. There’s not a cloud in the sky to shield the six people digging patiently in the hard Albertan mudstone from its relentless glare. Some wear shorts and t-shirts, but more opt for long sleeves and pants. It might seem crazy to wear more clothing than you need to in that kind of scorching heat, but it might just keep you cooler by keeping the sun off (not to mention the inch-long mosquitoes).

Welcome to Onefour, a point on the map that’s so remote, it’s named after the coordinates it occupies on a survey map. There’s not much around here, aside from a research station run by Agriculture Canada, and acres and acres of shortgrass prairie. The Sweet Grass Hills loom to the south, across the border in Montana. Aside from that, there are numerous herds of docile cattle and some of the best dinosaur hunting in the world.

In fact, the area we’re working in isn’t that close to Onefour, but that’s the nearest point you’ll find on any map. The team from the ROM – led by Dr. David Evans – is working with staff from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and students from the University of Toronto, the University of Hokkaido and Carleton University. They’ve all come to this remote pocket of southeastern Alberta to learn the process of excavating dinosaurs as part of the Southern Alberta Dinosaur Project, a cooperative project started in 2005.

There are few better places in the world to hunt dinosaurs than here: it’s given up more than 400 dinosaur skeletons in the last 100 years. In the late Cretaceous period the project is studying, Alberta was a stomping ground for fearsome predators such as Gorgosaurus and Albertosaurus. These carnivores hunted duck-billed dinosaurs such as Parasaurolophus and maybe the very same frilled dinosaur we’re excavating in our bone bed. These beasts shared the space with a wide variety of other animals, dinosaur and otherwise, including ankylosaurs and more. Find out more about these and other specimens of dinosaur online at the ROM.

The project runs for just a few weeks every year, but already they’ve discovered some exciting material. The “Southside Ceratopsian Quarry” contains the remains of what might be a new ceratopsian, the group of dinosaurs that includes Triceratops. In fact, ten years earlier a new type of ceratopsian was found in the same area: Albertaceratops nesmoi. That means that it’s possible this rich bone-producing area could be hiding yet another new genus of dinosaur.

The team works steadily for six to eight hours a day in the blistering heat and relentless wind. Dust quickly coats everything – it’s so fine it seeps into every nook and cranny, and flows like water. Each team member will go through as much as four litres of water a day – often mixed with a healthy dose of powdered Gatorade – to keep up with the heat. Unfortunately, the drinks quickly heat up to the temperature of tea if you haven’t put them in a freezer overnight, so don’t expect to get refreshed.

However, none of this really matters to the team. They patiently whittle away at the rock with small hand-picks and brushes, carefully separating layer upon layer of rock from bone. After a bone is fully exposed, it will be jacketed prior to removal (find out more about jacketing in a few days as we show you the process in detail). After that, the bones will be taken away for preservation and study. Only then will the researchers really know what they’ve got, and whether they might be looking at a new kind of dinosaur that hasn’t seen the light of day in over 65 million years.

See the Summersaurus Dino series for more on the ROM’s hunt for dinos!

Want to learn more about horned dinosaurs and how they lived? Visit the ROM’s James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs.