Monday, August 10, 2015

Guided Excavation

Trip Date: August 2015

"If you throw your hat and it doesn't come within twenty feet of a dinosaur bone,                 then you're not in Dinosaur Provincial Park." 
                                                 ~Anonymous
I returned to Dinosaur Provincial Park in early August to participate in their one-day Guided Excavation Program; meaning I was going to be digging up actual dinosaur bones inside the park!  I was secretly hoping the above quote was true because I really wanted to unearth a fossil or two.  If you recall, I was in the park back in July for the Centrosaurs Quarry Hike, which you can read about right here.  Due to previous commitments, this was only going to be a day trip from Calgary, but one that was well worth the effort!

Welcome to Dinosaur Provincial Park
I was on the road early as the program started at 9AM and the park is approximately 220km east of Calgary.  When I arrived, our guide David was ready and waiting at the Visitor Centre.  He did a brief orientation, complete with a tour of the lab, which is also a field station for the Royal Tyrrell Museum.  After last minute bathroom breaks we boarded the bus and headed for the Natural Preserve, which is an area of the park that's off-limits unless accompanied by a guide.  

The Visitor Centre doubles as a Field Station for the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller
This carnivorous Dromaeosaurus was part of a larger display showing how they were pack hunters
This is the skull of a Styracosaurus and it was assembled by our guide.  This was the first piece he's ever had displayed in a gallery.  It took David 14 months to get it ready to be featured and it was originally excavated in the park in 1987.
Our first stop featured a short hike to a couple of ancient clam beds.  Here we discovered hundreds of divots where prehistoric, freshwater clams had once resided.  Scattered across the soil were thousands of fragments of crushed clam shells and the odd intact specimen.  The clams would have lived at the bottom of a freshwater river that flowed through the area.  Near the clam bed is Quarry Number 221 that was excavated back in 1995.  They found a full skeleton of a Ornithomimid that is now on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

A solitary hoodoo perched in the badlands
The divots from the freshwater clams
Bits and pieces of ancient clam shells
This Nuttall's Cottontail was hopping by while we were looking at the clams
Beautiful badland scenery
Quarry Number 221 where the Ornithomimid skeleton was found
This leaf impression was also found in Quarry No. 221
Before reaching the dig site we made one more quick stop, which is also part of the Explorer's Bus Tour.  There was a spinal column of a duck-billed dinosaur on display, just as it was found in the late 1980's when they were building the road through the Natural Preserve.  Since there was no skull found at or near the site, researchers are unsure what species of duck-billed dinosaur it was.

Several intact vertebrae from a duck-billed dinosaur
It was a short walk to the dig site, which is one of several Centrosaurus Bone Beds that have been found in the park.  Our job was to excavate different areas of the dig site and carefully remove any bones that were found.  Large parts of the site had already been excavated from previous expeditions, but there was still lots of overburden to remove.  There were seven of us on the tour and David assigned each of us different tasks in different areas of the site.  It was my job to remove untouched soil that was immediately next to several exposed bones that were waiting to be removed from the ground.

If you look closely you can see the dig site just to the right of centre in the above photograph
Another view of the Centrosaurus Bone Bed dig site
All the materials we'd need for our day of excavating
David giving us a site orientation and assigning us our jobs
We were each given a set of tools that would help in the excavation process.  I was obviously excited for what might lay beneath the surface, but I was careful not to re-bury the previously exposed bones that were being removed by other members of the group.  Before lunch I had uncovered a small piece of Centrosaurus bone and several pieces of plant material, but nothing too substantial.

There were exposed bones scattered all around the dig site
Once a bone has been fully excavated a jacket of plaster is put over the bone to protect it from being damaged
A large fossil that was coated in plaster prior to our arrival
A few examples of the planet material I was uncovering during my dig
We stopped to enjoy lunch while David showed us several different fossils that had been uncovered in the park.  Teeth, claws, tendons, pieces of shell, and armour plating were some of the most interesting.  Before resuming work on the dig David lead us to a micro-site that was a short distance away from the main dig site.  Here it's common to find much smaller fossils, such as teeth or bits of tendon, instead of the large bones.  I found the tooth of a small plant-eating dinosaur, as well as turtle shell fragments and other pieces of bone.

On the way to the micro-site we passed this petrified log that's slowly deteriorating
Petrified Log
The bone bed as viewed from the micro-site
A group member spotted this tooth from a Gorgosaurus; a close relative of both Tyrannosaurus Rex and Albertosaurus
After our micro discoveries we returned to the site and resumed digging for the remainder of the afternoon.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to discover any large fossils, but that's all part of the experience.  I still had an incredible time and the possibility of finding something with each scoop of soil was very addicting.  I didn't want to leave!  It's worth noting that as fun as this experience is, participants are part of an ongoing scientific dig and will be handling real dinosaur fossils.  As a result of this the minimum age for participation is fourteen.

Some of the bones that were uncovered by members of our group
Limb bones from a Centrosaurus
The bones appear shiny because once they're exposed we coated them with glue to help preserve them.  Bones that are exposed to the elements after millions of years can be extremely fragile.
This is a piece of a horn from a Centrosaurus
The day concluded at the Cretaceous Cafe where we all enjoyed some ice cream.  One of the group members even spotted a Little Brown Bat enjoying his late afternoon snooze!

Little Brown Bat
I highly recommend the Guided Excavation program that's offered at Dinosaur Provincial Park.  If you have a keen interest in paleontology or just a passion for dinosaurs this experience should be on your bucket list.  To be honest, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect going in, but the bone beds offer such a wealth of opportunity that the odds of finding something are very high.  Plus we didn't just spend the entire day digging; we were also granted access to different areas of the park that are normally closed to the public.  To top it off, David's knowledge about the park and his passion for the work were infectious!  It was just an awesome day overall and I am extremely happy to have been apart of it.

I posted a brief story, titled Jurassic Province, about my time in Dinosaur Provincial Park on the Calgary Guardian website. In addition you can read about Canada's first and largest dinosaur nesting site by visiting my post called Devil's Coulee.

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