Evidence of New Dinosaur Species from Northern Alberta

When palaeontologists discuss the late Cretaceous dinosaur discoveries in Alberta, most automatically consider the fantastic fossils that have been found in the south of the Canadian State, from locations such as the Dinosaur Provincial Park and Drumheller.  However, a team of scientists from the University of Alberta are determined to put the north of the State on the dinosaur “hot spot” map.

The Peace River County, approximately 300 miles northwest of the city of Edmonton could benefit from dinosaur tourism if a museum is built in the area to exhibit all the exciting late Cretaceous fossils being discovered.  With the Royal Tyrrell Museum at Drumheller attracting over 400,000 visitors a year, the local authorities in the northern parts of Alberta hope that the dinosaurs from their part of Canada could one day attract significant numbers of tourists too.

A team of researchers from the University of Alberta in association with the Palaeontological Society of the Peace (PSP), believe they have discovered at least one new species of dinosaur.  This find coincides with the discovery of a dinosaur nesting site at nearby Grande Prairie, remains of baby dinosaurs were found along with the teeth of Dromaeosaurs which probably preyed on the young animals.

Tetsuto Miyashita, a University of Alberta student from Japan, and Frederico Fanti, a palaeontology graduate student from the University of Bologna, Italy, along with members of the Palaeontological Society of the Peace (PSP), made the discovery that indicates dinosaurs nested further north than believed.

The nesting site is significant as there is very little evidence of dinosaur nest sites in the fossil record, especially nest site at high northern latitudes.  Only one other part of the world has produced evidence of dinosaurs raising young at such high northern latitudes (Alaska).  The climate in the late Cretaceous was much warmer than today, but even so the winters would have been long with little daylight and the average summer temperature may have been no more than 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

To read more about the dinosaur discoveries in the far north: Chilly Dinosaurs – Dinosaurs did not mind the Cold

Commenting on the nesting site discovery, Miyashita stated that until this find there had been no significant areas of dinosaur fossils located between southern Alberta and Alaska, these new discoveries will help fill in that gap.

He commented:

“It established [this new site] that dinosaurs were nesting at this high latitude.  Alberta is dinosaur country, but all the dinosaurs we had previously showcased came from the southern part of the province.  Now we’ve showed there is a lot of potential for the northern part as well”.

The significance for the tourist trade in this part of northern Alberta cannot be underestimated, the rugged beauty of the landscape coupled with some late Cretaceous dinosaur attractions could be a winning combination.

Miyashita added:

“By saying dinosaur country, now you mean the entire province, not only Drumheller and Brooks.  Also this is a high-latitude locality.  The dinosaurs were pushing the climatic limit in Grande Prairie”.

Although the amazing dinosaur finds at sites such as the Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation are known throughout the world, Frederico Fanti pointed out that 70 million years ago much of that area was covered by a warm, shallow sea.  The possibility of finding many more types of dinosaur and other prehistoric animal from the rock strata of northern Alberta is much more exciting he stated.

The young, Italian scientist went onto comment:

“It was a joy to work in the Grande Prairie area verifying the significance of the fossils collected from the Wapiti [geological] Formation.  This small northwest area was basically the only portion of Alberta and Saskatchewan that was above sea level 73 to 75 million years ago, providing habitat for land animals whose remains we collected, studied and described”.

Bert Hunt, a science professor at Grande Prairie Regional College and the programme co-coordinator for the PSP, stated that dinosaurs nesting in northern Alberta showed how different the climate was back in the Cretaceous.  Winter temperatures in northern Alberta can drop to as low as -20 degrees Celsius and summer temperatures rarely exceed 25 degrees Celsius.

Professor Hunt exclaimed:

The interesting thing is that’s the way the Earth has been for most of its history.  There was no cold, no poles, it was weather suitable for living.  Those animals inhabited every piece of land they could inhabit.  They all had to move and eat and migrate.  They ate a lot and had big bodies they had to feed, so they had to travel to find food”.

The recent discovery occurred in the well-known fossil-rich Kleskun Hills area northeast of Grande Prairie during the 2007 digging season.  Fanti and Miyashita were out with Hunt, PSP president Katalin Ormay and PSP member Sheldon Graber, when Hunt spotted some fossils.  Soon everyone was working on the site, trying to find more material.  The bones have been identified as belonging to newly-hatched herbivorous dinosaurs, they represent animals no bigger than a rabbit, but when fully grown they would have weighed several tonnes.  The dinosaurs are members of the Hadrosauridae family, at least one species, may be new to science.

A number of teeth indicative of the presence of Dromaeosaurs were also found.  The scientists believe that these relatively small animals may have been the dominant predators in the far north and would have preyed on the young dinosaurs in the nesting colony.  Perhaps the Dromaeosaurs were the Cretaceous equivalent of Arctic foxes.  These animals have a “boom time” in terms of food availability when enormous flocks of Snow Geese arrive to exploit the long daylight hours in order to raise a brood.  For the rest of the year, the foxes have meagre pickings in comparison.

The Italian and Japanese palaeontologists also discovered the bones of freshwater fish and other reptiles (believed to be cold-blooded).  The young scientists believe that this is evidence that this part of northern Alberta had an ecosystem which was a mixture of more hardy species from Alaska mixing with fauna from the warmer south.  Very few late Cretaceous, non-Dinosauria reptile bones have been found in North America at higher latitudes, indicating that in the north, it was too cold for cold-blooded reptiles.  By studying the climate information and piecing together a picture of life in northern Alberta towards the end of the Mesozoic, the scientists hope to find some answers to the question of how dinosaurs responded to changes in climatic conditions.

This is not the first big dinosaur discovery made in northern Alberta.

Al Lakusta, a Montrose school teacher, stumbled across a new species in a bone bed at Pipestone Creek; a species that would later be named after him – Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai.  As a result of the extensive bone bed discovery, this particular Ceratopsian (horned dinosaur) is one of the best known of all the horned dinosaurs of North America.

To view a model of a Pachyrhinosaurus: Dinosaur Models for Boys and Girls – Dinosaur Toys

Professor Hunt went on to comment that scientists have only scratched the surface as far as the northern dinosaur remains are concerned.

“Probably in this Wapiti Formation that’s up to a kilometre thick around the Grande Prairie area, every single dinosaur, mammal or reptile will be a new species”.

Members of the PSP and local officials have stated that the development of major palaeontological dig sites in the area could provide a huge boost for the local economy.  The creation of a dinosaur attraction such as a museum could be a huge draw for tourists.

When asked about how many fossils the area could provide, Professor Hunt stated that in his opinion they were “sitting on a gold mine”.  The northern Alberta tourist board are hoping that this is indeed the case and that the area will get a much needed boost to its economy from the increase in tourists.

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