Hunting for Dinosaur Bones as Alberta's Flood Waters Recede

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Switching to north of the border now. You might recall our story last month about flooding along the Bow River in the Canadian province of Alberta. The city of Calgary was particularly hard hit. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated and the city is still recovering from the damage. But as the flood waters have receded, scientists say the erosion is leading to some very interesting discoveries like possible dinosaur bones. FranÃ? §ois Therrien is a paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. So you've already had a member of the public reach out to you to look at a bone he found while out walking his dog. What did he find?

Francois Therrien: The gentleman, yeah, contacted the Tyrrell Museum because he had found bones eroding out of the bank along the Bow River in northwestern Calgary. And the interesting thing about that part of the province is that the rocks are slightly too young to contain dinosaur bones. All the rest of Alberta is dinosaur galore and in places it's impossible to take a step without stepping on dinosaur bones. So I asked the gentleman to send photos and it turns out to be bones of a large mammal, possibly a bison. So that was interesting 'cuz, yeah, it showed that what was being eroded were not actually rocks, but glacial deposits that were formed approximately ten thousand years ago.

Werman: What do you think these riverbeds, once the waters recede, might actually reveal? I mean what's the potential in your wildest dreams?

Therrien: The potential is great 'cuz we have very good areas in southern Alberta called the "badlands" that's a rugged topography of rounded hills and deep canyons that expose a lot of rocks that contain dinosaur bones. So in those badlands we have a pretty good idea of what type of dinosaurs can be found there, but if we go outside of those badlands we have either urban sprawl, lots of cities, or we have lots of vegetation and all the rocks are covered and the only place where we have a snapshot of those rocks is along the major rivers where the rivers are actually eroding into their banks. So that's where we'll have the maximum potential finding new bones.

Werman: What types of dinosaurs wandered around what is now Alberta?

Therrien: Some of the most commonly known dinosaurs are obviously T-Rex, Triceratops, Albertosaurus, Ankylosaurus, the big armored dinosaurs, and a whole diversity of duck-billed dinosaurs. In fact, if you go to any museum in North America and you see a nice skeleton of a duck-billed dinosaur or a horned dinosaur, nine times out of ten that specimen is gonna be from Alberta. So that's just to show how rich Alberta is in terms of dinosaur skeletons. So the potential to find complete or new dinosaur species in Alberta is extremely high.

Werman: We hear a lot about Alberta and its oil. Is there going to be a new kind of gold rush/ oil rush on dino bones now?

Therrien: Well, there was what we call "The Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush" in the early 20th century, between 1910 and 1920, and that was basically the real start to paleontology in Canada. So we hope that maybe the recent flood will actually help us discover new species and for that we rely a lot on the public 'cuz we can't go everywhere in the province, so we hope that the public is gonna be our eyes in the field. So if they go along the rivers just for canoeing, for fishing, and they see bones coming out of the rock along the riverbanks, we ask them to actually take photos, note the location, but leave the bones in place. That's really important 'cuz we can go send a team and investigate the site and hopefully uncover a new skeleton.

Werman: So no dinosaur bones yet, FranÃ? §ois, from this receding waters, but you do sound pretty darn excited. When are you heading out for a dig?

Therrien: Actually I'll be heading out right after this interview and I've been conducting a dig in the badlands. The site I'm going to will be an excavation of a horned dinosaur called a Xenoceratops which is a very rare animal, so that's why it's really exciting to find a skeleton of such an animal. So erosion is our friend 'cuz it uncovers new skeletons every year, but it can also be an enemy 'cuz it destroys the bones. So it's always a race against mother nature to try to recover all the bones before they all get destroyed.

Werman: Well, FranÃ? §ois Therrien, thank you for your time. FranÃ? §ois Therrien, curator of dinosaur paleo-ecology at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller in Alberta, Canada. Thank you.

Therrien: Thank you for having me.