Dinosaur Hunting in Western Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Dinosaur Hunting in Western Canada

Most early discoveries were made in artificial excavations, eg, rock quarries or coal mines.
Dinosaur Provincial Park
This view depicts the eroding badlands and alternating beds of sandstone and shale (photo by Cliff Wallis, courtesy Cottonwood Consultants Ltd.).

Dinosaur Hunting in Western Canada

 DINOSAURS were unknown to science until 1824, when FOSSIL teeth and bones were discovered in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous rocks of southern England. Since then, their remains have been found on all continents and in rocks 200 million to 65 million years old.

Most early discoveries were made in artificial excavations, eg, rock quarries or coal mines. With the opening of western N America to geological exploration, large areas were found where natural EROSION had removed soil and rock, making possible the deliberate search for and organized collection of fossil skeletons.


One such area is the RED DEER R valley in Alberta, the so-called BADLANDS. Here dinosaur fossils were first collected by a scientist over 100 years ago. Joseph B. TYRRELL, a young geologist with the GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA (GSC), discovered the incomplete skull of a flesh-eating dinosaur, now known as Albertosaurus sarcophagus, the Alberta carcass eater. This was found in the valley of Kneehills Creek, about 5 km NW of DRUMHELLER.

Five years later another skull of the same species was found by Thomas C. Weston, also a member of the GSC. This was in the Red Deer R valley near Rumsey. Weston also discovered the southernmost area of fossil-bearing badlands which now make up the DINOSAUR PROVINCIAL PARK.

First Organized Collection

A Canadian expedition specifically organized to collect dinosaur fossils was conducted in 1898 and again in 1901 by Lawrence M. Lambe of the GSC. In 1901 he published the first detailed account of Alberta dinosaurs. This was good by the standards of the time, but did not reveal fully the richness of the Alberta deposits. This was first done by an American paleontologist, Barnum Brown, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

In 1909 a rancher named John L. Wegener, who lived near the site of present-day Drumheller, visited the New York museum and reported the occurrence of numerous fossil bones on his ranch. Brown, who was an experienced fossil collector, came to the Wegener ranch and verified the reported occurrence. In 1910 he went to the town of Red Deer with 3 trained assistants and had a barge built, on which he and his companions floated down the Red Deer R, prospecting and collecting from temporary camps along the way. This program was continued for 5 summers, resulting in the discovery and removal of some 16 dinosaur specimens, most of which were new to science.

Sternberg Contribution

Acquisition of these spectacular Canadian fossils by a foreign museum prompted the GSC to resume collecting in the Red Deer R badlands, but there were no Canadians who were skilled in the special techniques required to excavate and transport these large but fragile skeletons. So the services of the Sternberg family of Lawrence, Kansas, were engaged. The father, Charles H. Sternberg, had been a professional fossil collector for various museums since 1876. His 3 sons, George F. Sternberg, Charles M. STERNBERG and Levi Sternberg, all learned the techniques from their father, and became famous collectors in their own right.

The first Sternberg expedition for the GSC was in 1912, to the area visited by Brown in his reconnaissance of 1909. They had some success, but in 1913 they moved to the more southern field, then known as the Stephenville badlands, now Dinosaur Provincial Park. Here they collected many important specimens now housed in the CANADIAN MUSEUM OF NATURE (formerly National Museum of Natural Sciences) in Ottawa. In 1916 C.H. Sternberg and his son Levi left the GSC to work for other museums, to be followed in 1918 by the eldest son, George. Charles M. Sternberg. The second son remained with the GSC and the National Museum of Canada for the remainder of his career, and became a world-recognized authority on dinosaurs.

In addition to the specimens housed in Ottawa, dinosaur skeletons collected by the Sternbergs in Alberta are preserved today in the ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM in Toronto, the U OF ALBERTA in Edmonton, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Field Museum in Chicago, the San Diego Museum in California and the British Museum (Natural History) in London, Eng.

Provincial Initiatives

The government of Alberta in 1956 began a program of dinosaur display, first with the Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks, and culminating in 1985 with the opening of the ROYAL TYRRELL MUSEUM OF PALAEONTOLOGY at Drumheller, a world-class institution for research and display of dinosaurs and other fossils.

Because dinosaur fossils are irreplaceable, Alberta and Saskatchewan have legislation to prevent indiscriminate removal of these historical resources. In Alberta would-be collectors of fossils must have the written permission of the provincial government.

Process of Collection

Collecting dinosaur fossils in the field involves 2 distinct phases, discovery and excavation. No modern technique has yet superseded the old-fashioned method of prospecting, ie, just looking. This requires keen, experienced eyes and strong, nimble legs. The dinosaur hunter carries a digging tool, usually a light pick, which serves in making exploratory excavations and is useful in climbing steep slopes.

A typical prospecting party might consist of 3 persons. Each would concentrate on a particular level of the exposure. In the Red Deer R badlands, exposures are mostly intricate ravines, often with clifflike sides. Keeping as much as possible to his own level, the fossil hunter works his way along these slopes, up one side of the ravine and down the other. It is important that rock surfaces be examined thoroughly but, often, a steep interval forces the hunter to detour up or down, then climb back to his original level. The work is strenuous and tiring, but the fossil hunter is kept alert by the thought that just ahead may be the discovery of the year.

There is no way of detecting fossil bone unless it is exposed. It is brittle and easily broken and, as natural erosion proceeds, pieces fall off and are strewn down slopes and erosion channels. These are the fossil prospector's "float," and he follows their lead to where they either give out or reveal bones still in place and projecting from rock surfaces. Fossil bone is usually easy to recognize from its smooth outer surface or, in broken specimens, its layered or honeycombed interior structure. Complete bones are recognizable by their form and their unique sheen, which is most easily recognized in bright sunshine.

The importance of the find must be tested by carefully uncovering the bone, using the pick or a hand tool like an awl and a whisk broom to clear away debris. If the bone looks promising, the second phase of collecting begins: the uncovering of bones for wrapping and removal. A kind of quarry is made by excavating overlying rock layers. The steeper the slope on which the find occurs, the higher the excavation must be to obtain a flat working surface over the bones.

The basic principle in uncovering specimens is to expose only as much bone as is needed to determine extent and orientation in the rock. The excavation would follow the bones, with minimum exposure, laying bare a floor of rock with patches of bone showing through. From the time of discovery, fossil bone must be protected from further disintegration. Exposed surfaces are hardened and cracks sealed by applying thin, liquid cement, which penetrates well and sets quickly.

After the area occupied by the bones has been delineated by a floor, a trench is dug around the perimeter to a depth well below the bone-bearing level. This trench is expanded as an undercut as far beneath the bone-bearing layer as hand tools and the stability of the matrix will allow. Excess rock from the upper surface may be removed at this time.

Depending on the hardness of the rock, the tools may be scrapers or hand-held chisels. Small pneumatic or electric chisels may be used where suitable. Debris is brushed or shovelled away, and all exposed bone thoroughly impregnated with cement. When the cement is dry, rice paper or facial tissue is placed over the exposed bone and wetted down with brush or spray. This serves to separate bone and plaster wrapping.

Burlap is cut into long strips about 12 cm wide, and liquid plaster is prepared. One strip of burlap at a time is rolled into the liquid to impregnate the fabric and form an easily handled roll. The plaster-soaked burlap is unrolled across the rock and bone surface, patted and squeezed to form a close contact. The strips are continued over the edge of the rock and tucked into the undercut. Successive strips of plaster-burlap are applied, each overlapping the preceding strip by about 2.5 cm, until the entire block or section has been bandaged.

When the plaster bandage has hardened, possibly overnight, the block of matrix and bone is undercut more deeply, until the remaining pedestal is small enough to crack across with careful prying. The block is then turned over. The unwrapped lower surface, if sufficiently strong and not too large, will remain intact. When the block is turned over, excess rock may be removed, as with the upper side. Exposed bone is cemented and covered with paper, and the protruding edges of the upper bandage are trimmed flush with the matrix. Then the plaster bandage is applied to the inverted underside, with edges firmly lapped over the upper bandage.

If the specimen is too large to be bandaged and transported in one block, it is divided into sections, each of which is bandaged separately. When each section has hardened and dried, it is labelled and moved to the packing area. Sometimes this is difficult, owing to the inaccessibility of the quarry. In earlier years, a small wooden sled (stone boat) was used, the section being roped to the sled and the load dragged out by a team of horses. Today, 4-wheel-drive vehicles and power winches have made movement somewhat easier, and helicopters have been used in Saskatchewan and Alberta to retrieve large specimens.

Early collectors had only man or horse power for quarry excavation and transportation of bandaged blocks. Automobiles were introduced to the Alberta fossil fields in 1921, and motor transport has improved progressively. Motor-driven jack hammers speed up excavation. Dynamite may be used to loosen overburden or break up hard rock layers. House trailers have replaced tents, and camp kitchen facilities now include naphtha stoves and propane refrigerators. But success in dinosaur hunting still depends on walking and climbing, on the ability to recognize a find from a few fragments and on knowing what to do about it.


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