Once upon a time, all manner of dinosaurs roamed the landscape of Alberta – some had horns, others had feathers, many had teeth (big ones!). It was a happening dinosaur destination.
Fast forward 100 million years, give or take, and people from all over the world flock to Alberta to retrace the thunderous steps of these prehistoric creatures, learn how they lived and died and peer up close at thousands at their bones. Maybe you will too. After all, some of the most important dino discoveries on the planet have been made in Alberta, many of which can be seen at the province’s two dinosaur museums, the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller and the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Grande Prairie. Here’s a handful:
In 1910, American paleontologist Barnum Brown (a.k.a. Mr. Bones) found nine different Albertosaurus, a type of Tyrannosaur, near Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park in central Alberta. In 1996, armed with only a few photos and a hunch, paleontologist Dr. Philip J. Currie went looking for the site. He found it. And he found as many as 26 more Albertosaurus aged two to 20, some of which are on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The bones showed—for the first time—that Tyrannosaurs hung around in big, noisy carnivorous groups. And it seems the “little” ones liked to bite each other on the face to show who’s who in the pecking order.
Imagine a dinosaur about the size of a dude with little arms walking around on two legs and covered in feathers. That’s Albertavenator curriei, a brand-new dinosaur species that lived 71 million years ago. Named for Currie, the bird-like creatures are part of the Troodontidae family of dinosaurs. When some of their bones were first found in central Alberta, paleontologists thought they part of a different clan, the Troodon inequalis. Turns out Albertavenator curriei had a shorter and stronger skull. Finding these bird-like bones is rare and paleontologists are hoping to find a complete skeleton one of these days.
This armoured herbivore, which was more than five metres long and weighed in at about 1,300 kilograms (3,000 pounds), was swept away in a flood one day about 110 million years ago. In 2011, a guy operating a digger at a mine in northern Alberta stumbled upon one of the best-preserved nodosaur specimens anywhere in the world, not on display at the Tyrrell Museum. It was in a life-like position, its
massive head turned to the left, with some soft tissue and all its bony armour and scales in place. Gleeful paleontologists were able to recover the beast intact from its snout all the way to its hips (even National Geographic featured the fossil).
This cute little guy was a toddler when it died about 72 million years ago. Paleontologists have found plenty of adult horned dinosaur specimens around North America but this is the first and only complete juvenile skeleton they’ve uncovered. Currie found it in Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park in 2010. He was surprised to see that its skull had a different shape and frill than its parents. That little nugget of info is helping researchers figure out how the Chasmosaurus and other horned dinosaurs, like the Triceratops, evolved.
This duck-billed dino fossil found near Grande Prairie, but named after Alberta’s capital city of Edmonton, was strutting around 73 million years ago with a fleshy bit on the top of its head, like a rooster’s comb. Why? Scientists think it may have been there to indicate its age or species, or, considering its flashy colours, maybe just for showing off for the ladies. Either way, the discovery on the head of the 12-metre long, plant-eating Edmontosaurus may hint that other dinosaurs also sported fleshy and flashy lids.
It was a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead paleontologists from the University of Alberta set out to look for dinosaur feathers preserved in bits of amber. And they found ‘em – in 2011 the team found 11 fossilized feathers in amber from around Grassi Lake in southern Alberta. This is the first time dinosaur feathers have been found preserved in amber. Some are rather simple and others are more complex barbed feathers, sort of like the ones you might see flying around if you look up today.
This Gorgosaurus specimen, a smaller, leaner and older cousin to the more famous Tyrannosaurus, is one of the best-preserved tyrannosaurs ever found, anywhere. It’s special partly because Tyrannosaurs don’t often show up in Alberta. Like many other dino discoveries around the world, this beast was found in the iconic and somewhat mysterious “death pose” — head back, tail extended and mouth wide open. The bones of this Gorgosaurus hold another mystery. While it was living, its right leg was broken somehow and the bones healed over, leading paleontologists and the rest of us to wonder the kind of life it led.
At least nine different types of dinosaurs who were on the move 110 million years ago left behind thousands of footprints in the mud. That mud is now steep sheets of rock near Grand Cache in northern Alberta and those footprints are some of the most extensive dinosaur trackways found in the world. Within about 25 square kilometers there are more than a dozen sites of trackways with the most common footprint coming from an armoured dinosaur. These important trackways, found by workers at a coal mine, show how dinosaurs got around—in three metre strides—and give some information about how they hung around in groups.
In 1974, Al Lakusta, a science teacher and amateur fossil hunter went for a longer walk than usual around Pipestone Creek near Grande Prairie and came upon the densest bonebed of horned dinosaurs in the world. Thousands of different dinosaurs died in a massive flood about 75 million years ago in what’s now called, cheerfully, the River of Death. When paleontologists started digging they found a new species of Pachyrhinosaurus, a herbivore with big lumpy bone masses on its face and horns over its frill. The new species, with a face only a mother can love, was named for the science teacher who found the bonebed.
The skeleton of this Stegoceras, a type of pachycephalosaur (or pachy for short), was found about 100 years ago and helped palaeontologists determine that pachycephalosaurs were most definately dinosaurs. It also shed light on what these dome-headed beauties looked like. It was decades before other well preserved pachy skeletons were found in China and the U.S. The skull on this Stegoceras was is in such good shape that paleontologists could look at the delicate bones in its nose that helped it smell. Recently, they’ve been studying a ridge on its nose that probably helped cool the blood going to its dino brain.
Hit up Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about a two and a half hours east of Calgary.
Head to Drumheller to climb hundreds of hoodoos left behind by raging rivers and wander through world-renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.
Go for a hike near the River of Death where thousands of dinosaurs perished in a pre-historic flood near Grande Prairie.
Spin the dial on a time machine back to the Cretaceous period at the shiny new Philip J. Currie Museum, named for one of most acclaimed paleontologists in the world. He’s right here in Alberta. And so are ordinary people who have stumbled upon extraordinary dinosaur finds.