Preparation, predation and a missing quarry

I’ve already mentioned that my time in Canada involved a short trip to Dinosaur Provincial Park with Darren Tanke, but we were also out with Mark Graham, a preparator at the Natural History Museum in London. Mark has kindly written up a guest post on the trip and the hunt for the lost Spinops quarry.

Mark preparing Spinops

Mark preparing Spinops

The recent  Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium (FPCS) hosted by the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, provided a great opportunity for me to give a talk about the recent conservation and mounting of a large skull of the ichthyosaur Temnodontosaurus platyodon and also to team up with Darren Tanke for some fieldwork in Dinosaur Provincial Park to try and find the location of a lost quarry.

The quarry we sought had contained, in 1916, a bonebed of material which the legendary Sternbergs had collected for the then Geological Museum in London (now the NHM). Among the specimens collected was the partial skull and parietal elements of a horned dinosaur – a centrosaurine ceratopsian – which I had the privilege of preparing in 2008. It was a new species named Spinops sternbergorum and it was through this work that I got to know Darren (we were co-authors on the descriptive paper). He suggested that I take along a sample of the Spinops matrix so that we could use it to try and match the distinctive ironstone to exposures in an area “3 miles upriver from Steveville”, which the Sternbergs had recorded as the location of the find in their field notes. Locating abandoned quarries in the badlands from clues left in old photographs, fieldnotes, quarry markers and litter is something of a speciality of Darren’s and so I tagged on three days holiday at the end of the symposium to do some sleuthing with him.

Spinops quarry material, replete with ironstone

Spinops quarry material, replete with ironstone

Dave Hone was also at the Tyrrell, undertaking research with Darren into bite marks on fossil bones and he also attended the symposium and gave a very insightful presentation titled ‘Scientific Communication of Fossil Preparation in the Digital Realm’ [Dave adds: this should go online at some point]. This discussed how his blog had been used to communicate Darren’s prepwork on the tyrannosaurine Gorgosaurus to a wide audience of professionals and amateurs. Following the symposium, Dave joined in the expedition in search of the Spinops quarry.

First, we hired a small room in a ‘Hotel and BBQ Pit’ in a little place called Patricia, a few miles outside Dinosaur Provincial Park. It is an old haunt of Canadian palaeontologists and the accommodation could best be described as offering ‘substantial scope for improvement’. I experienced for the first time in many many years the joys of an upper bunk bed! But it all added to the fun and, as the name suggested, in the evening guests get to cook their own steaks, burgers and chicken on a big indoor barbeque.

We were all up early the following morning and after a hot breakfast we set off for the field with pack lunches and plenty of water as the weather, which had been cold with snow flurries, had turned quite warm and windy. Darren had arranged access with a land owner and we drove across the prairie in search of a padlocked fence that we had been given the combination to. The terrain was incredibly flat and featureless but thanks to Darren’s knowledge and a bit of help from the GPS, we found our way. En-route we saw some great wildfowl and white tailed deer which gave Dave an opportunity to get busy with his telephoto lens.



Soon enough we reached a point where the prairie fell suddenly away into coulees and down into the Red Deer River Valley with the great bluffs of the Upper Cretaceous rising all around. This landscape was formed after glaciers scraped away  great swathes of land during the last ice age 13,000 years ago and has been steadily eroding ever since, creating some wonderful capped pinnacles called hoodoos, where ironstone rich layers weather out atop columns of softer sandstone rocks, like giant mushrooms. The scene looked exactly like the old photos from the golden age of fossil hunting and we began working our way down the steep sides of the bluffs, stopping on platforms as we descended and jumping across the occasional water eroded crevice onto the next slope. Many of the surfaces were very slippery with weathered Bentonite clay shale, which mercifully was fairly dry. When wet the shale is treacherous and impossible to get a firm footing on.

Mark in the field. The areas was cleared of cactus first.

Mark in the field. The area was cleared of cactus first.

Darren had warned us against nasty little cactuses which grew a few centimetres high and that left lots of needles in the hand if touched. It didn’t take me long to reach up for support climbing over a ledge and put my hand onto one, which resulted in some choice language. My right hand resembled a pin cushion and it took a while to remove the spines. Some of the broken ones stayed put and are still working their way out weeks later.

But we soon all started finding material – dinosaur, champsosaur and turtle was everywhere we looked, weathering out of the rocks all around us.  Hadrosaur and ceratopsian bones are commonplace and during our prospecting our finds included a row of articulated hadrosaur vertebrae, complete limb elements, a virtually intact ceratopsian vertebrae hanging off the edge of a slope, a perfect ankylosaur tooth and two large tyrannosaur teeth. We also found part of a hadrosaur limb with fantastic serration scars from predation. One area which demanded our attention was a steep slope at the bottom of which we were finding fragments of tyrannosaur bone and all three of us turned up several broken fragments across an area of a few feet, suggesting that a specimen was – or had been – weathering out.

Dave and Darren take out a tyrannosaur tooth

Dave and Darren take out a tyrannosaur tooth

Under the provisions of the Alberta Historical Resources Act of 1978 all palaeotological, prehistoric and historic resources are protected on both crown and private lands. The DPP is a world heritage site and the law protecting its fossils is unambiguous – nothing may be removed.  Darren used a GPS to pinpoint our more significant finds and, because he represents the Royal Tyrrell, we were able to carefully remove, tag and bag the tyrannosaur teeth (which could be used in the museum’s excellent educational programme) and the predated specimen, which had an immediate research application. This material and the accompanying data were logged back at the museum. It was very satisfying for Dave and I to record our names on the specimen find tags alongside Darren, knowing that these would be associated with the specimens in the museum collections.

While no professional palaeontologist would argue against the need to protect fossils and guard against illegal collecting, it seemed very alien to leave behind really well preserved specimens to deteriorate in – and ultimately be lost to –  the elements. I couldn’t help thinking that, surely fossils like the perfect little ankylosaur tooth, the intact limb bones and phalanxes and unguals  and the  string of vertebrae could be loaned to schools and colleges  in the province and beyond to inspire students to study palaeontology; serving an important purpose and protecting the material for future generations?. While the scientific value of much of the isolated elements is limited, it could nevertheless spark passion in budding palaeontologists and who can argue that that is not in itself of scientific value?

We scoured a long stretch of the coulees – up and down each one – parallel to the river in the vicinity Darren had identified from the Sternberg field notes, paying particular attention to the boundary of the Dinosaur Park and Oldman formations. Dave found some rock closely matching the matrix sample but there was no sign of quarrying at that spot. On the second day, Darren found a metal quarry marker which he recorded on the GPS for further investigation, but he didn’t think it related to the missing quarry and he is now turning his attention (following some further intriguing clues)to the possibility that it might be located on the opposite side of the riverbank.

Spinops parietal frill: sadly still quarry-less.

Spinops parietal frill: sadly still quarry-less.

My visit to the Royal Tyrrell collections, the symposium and the field trip were fantastic and I’d like to record my thanks to the organisers who did a fabulous job. In particular I know that Dave will join me in marking  our appreciation to  Darren, who spent a great deal of time with us even though he had other pressing demands, including his father’s hospitalization and a house purchase to deal with while we were with him.

5 Responses to “Preparation, predation and a missing quarry”

  1. 1 Mark Robinson 20/05/2013 at 5:08 am

    Thanks Mark and Dave. I enjoy these guest posts, especially ones that give an interested layperson an insight into fossil collection and/or prep.

    You mention that a lot of the isolated elements prob didn’t have much scientific value and would therefore be left to erode away to nothing (which seems crazy to me, altho’ I understand that museums don’t have the resources to collect everything). However, what about the partial hadrosaur limb with feeding traces? I would have thought that might be worthy of digging up given that it relates to dinosaur behaviour or are these now sufficiently common that this one wouldn’t add to our sum of knowledge? (I went looking for – I can’t believe that it’s been almost three years since I first read that).

    • 2 Darren Tanke 20/05/2013 at 5:43 am

      Mark, that tooth-marked specimen was in fact collected, has been prepared as far as it can be, and I will submit it for cataloguing into our research collection.

      • 3 Mark Robinson 21/05/2013 at 3:12 am

        Thanks Darren. Reading back, I see that I misread “predated” as “pre-dated”.

    • 4 Mark Graham 21/05/2013 at 11:51 am

      Thanks for the response Mark – I agree that the museum could not possibly collect everything and the Royal Tyrrell is in the enviable position, of being able to be highly selective in what it adds to the collection. BUT (and this is where I take issue with the policy of leaving material to erode), other museums and institutions – and schools – could make very good use of these wonderful fossils. They could hold these in trust so that the material remained the property of the province of Alberta and use it for educational and study purposes.

      The ‘problem’ (and what a nice problem to have) – is that the badlands yield an over-abundance of riches and because DPP is a protected site fabulous material is literally left to rot where it weathers out. That has to be wrong in my view.

      I would not in any way support uncontrolled access to the park or casual digging for fossils, but there ought to be a way to professionally recover and donate on loan good quality exposed material.

      I believe that the Dorset coast fossil code provides a great blueprint for such a scheme; it prevents the loss of important material to the elements and ensures that collecting is undertaken in a controlled manner. Of course it is not 100% effective, but I think it strikes a very laudible balance between access and conservation.

      Be interesting to hear what other people think.


  1. 1 The live fauna of Dinosaur Provincial Park | Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 22/05/2013 at 6:27 pm
Comments are currently closed.

@Dave_Hone on Twitter


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 576 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: