September 7, 2021
When out looking for signs of dinosaurs, be careful where you sit.
Researchers exploring Alberta’s Redwillow River valley uncovered a block of sandstone containing a partial skull of an unidentified horned dinosaur from an estimated 72 million years ago. With the help of a borrowed helicopter, the stone made its way to the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum last week.
The team was out prospecting the area in August 2019, Corwin Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Alberta and curator of the museum, told Postmedia Saturday, when one of the members sat down on a rock to take a closer look at a small piece of bone he had spotted on the surface. When others came to take a look they saw that the piece was just a portion of what the rock was hiding.
“(He) had basically sat on this fossil, and what was exposed on the surface of the block turned out to be part of the skull of a horned dinosaur,” Sullivan said.
Between delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the complexities of lifting a large chunk of stone to safety while protecting its cargo, it took until last week for the stone to be broken down to a small enough size to be carried by helicopter from the river valley to a nearby hay field and later brought by trailer to the dinosaur museum about 20 minutes away from where the skull was found.
It will soon be off to the University of Alberta where researchers will likely spend years working to reveal the skull and discover exactly what type of dinosaur it was.
So far, all you can tell from looking at the rock is that the skull is the left cheek region of a ceratopsian — or horned — dinosaur, Sullivan said.
Different types of ceratopsian, known for their horns and bony frills on the back of their heads, roamed the Earth, the most famous of which was the triceratops. In northern Alberta, specimens from the genus Pachyrhinosaurus have been found in two different bone beds in the Wapiti Formation including at the Pipestone Creek bone bed.
“Outside those two bone beds, this is really the first potentially identifiable piece of horned dinosaur material from the Wapiti Formation. In other words, this is a specimen that I expect we’ll be able to identify the level of genus or possibly even species once it’s been cleaned up,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the most exciting conclusion would be if the experts discover the new skull is a different type of horned dinosaur that hasn’t been found in the region before. Even if it does end up being the same type of Pachyrhinosaurus that has been collected elsewhere, he said the skull is still valuable since it gives experts more data on how and where the dinosaur lived and for how long.
“It’s always a slow accumulation of information. Each specimen just adds a bit more and eventually you end up with a really interesting comprehensive picture of the things that lived in the geological past,” he said.
“So this is one step towards it and if it turns out to be something other than Pachyrhinosaurus then it’s a pretty big step, potentially.”
While chiselling the block down to get it light enough for the helicopter to carry, members of the team also found the claw bone of what they believe is a two-legged theropod dinosaur.
“We think it’s an ornithomimid, one of the ostrich-mimic dinosaurs, which are very rare in northern Alberta so far. So that’s another exciting data point that we can have,” said Jackson Sweder, the collections and research technician at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum.
Once the university is done with the skull it will be returned to the museum.
Museum executive director Linden Roberts said having specimens on display from the region is important for showing pride in the area.
“Almost all the people in the Peace Region know that they are in dinosaur territory. They’ve often walked along riverbeds and found fossil fragments and their pride in the research in this area comes across as pride in the area,” she said.