1. On a day like any other
Shawn Funk, a heavy machinery operator, was digging through the sand as he’d been doing for the last twelve years with energy company Suncor. Stationed to work at the Millennium Mine in Fort McMurray, Alberta, it was tough but consistent work Funk was thankful to have.
Funk could fall into a daze while operating the excavator that cut through the layers of soil, sand and rock. In his time at Suncor the most unusual thing he’d ever uncovered was some fossilized wood, but nothing seriously exciting. That is, until Funk looked into the bank below, and notice that something in the earth looked different.
2. Something unusual in the sand
It was early in the afternoon when Funk’s bucket clanged against a hard surface. Stopping to look into what he had excavated he dumped out the rocks, and noticed walnut-looking lumps of something strange. Funk wasn’t sure what the dark brown rocks were, but they definitely weren’t the soil and sand he’d been used to seeing.
He called his supervisor, Mike Gratton over to take a look. “Right away, Mike was like, ‘We gotta get this checked out’…It was definitely nothing we had ever seen before.” The pair went to alert more senior staff at Suncor, still unsure of what they’d unearthed. What could Funk have found?
3. Calling in the experts
Thinking they’d found something archaeological, it was decided that the dark brown lumps ought to be looked at by a professional, better equipped than someone from their staff. Immediately, Suncor’s higher-ups called in the calvary – the Royal Tyrrell Museum, to come in and identify the rocks.
In fact, all construction crews working in Alberta are trained to call the museum whenever they spot something that doesn’t look like the same old sand. The oil sand quandry in Alberta is notoriously peppered in fossils, as the area was once an inland water mass. While the remains of marine reptiles are the most common, what Funk found was nothing like that.
4. It’s off to work we go
Within two days Donald Henderson, Curator of Dinosaurs, and Darren Tanke, a senior technician in the Fossil Preparation Lab, had flown in from the Royal Tyrrell Museum to Fort McMurray. “After a few minutes of puzzling we realized it was something totally unexpected,” Henderson would later write of the fateful day they first entered the mine.
It was decided that in the interest of extracting the specimen without inflicting further damage, it would have to be a team effort. Working tirelessly in twelve-hour shifts, they were finally down to a 15,000 pound rock. And one thing that was certain, it contained something extraordinary at its core.
5. A diamond in the rough
The Suncor staff was all abuzz with the work happening down in the Millennium Mine. Doug Lacey, a Suncor project manager told reporters, “When we started I saw grown men, long-term employees, showing up like kids on Christmas morning.” But sometimes even the best laid plans can go awry.
Once the specimen was isolated, it would have to be lifted for transport. Wrapped in burlap and plaster, it was hooked up to a lift, and from there, would be hoisted out of the bank. With the cameras catching every monumental moment the lift operator was given the go-ahead, but that’s when everything fell apart – literally.
6. Things fall apart
Immortalized on film, disaster struck. Just as the operator began lifting the large hunk of cliffside they’d spent fourteen days excavating, the burlap tore, and the rock dropped. Hitting the ground, the rock shattered. Luckily, it splintered into large chunks that could later be reconstructed.
The fossil’s interior was partially mineralized, making it incredibly fragile and prone to fragmenting. Then, knowing firsthand, unfortunately, just how delicate the specimen was, Tanke and Henderson had to hatch a plan to transport the seven and half ton rock back to the Royal Tyrrell without causing any more damage. How could it be done?
7. Brainstorming for a hair-brained scheme
Still, the time it had taken them to painstakingly excavate the specimen was time away from Suncor’s regularly scheduled work, and the two scientists were feeling the pressure to get the fossil out of there. Now that they had the rock’s extreme delicacy to consider, they were presented with a new problem.
Tanke stayed up all night until he had a plan for its safe removal. In the morning, the workers of Suncor were wrapping the large fragments in sheets of plaster. Meanwhile, Henderson and Tanke were still scrambling to find a way to transport the plaster wrapped fragments back to the museum.
8. Traveling in style
Tanke and Henderson may have flown down to the quarry, but the only way to bring the massive hunks of rock back was on the road. While the fragments were being carefully covered in plaster, Tanke devised a plan to stabilize the fragments on the drive back to their lab.
To see Tanke’s transport plan through, they needed timber, but as that seemed less and less likely, Tanke came up with a crafty plan B. Using burlap soaked in plaster, they rolled them up like logs, and loaded up the truck. Would their plan spell disaster or prove to be ingenious?
9. And now the real work starts
The huge hunks of rock made it the 420 miles back to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in one piece, or, to be specific, they didn’t shatter anymore than they already had. From there, they were brought to the fossil preparation lab, where work on the specimen would really begin in earnest.
After the massive amount of manpower that went into getting the fossil from Fort McMurray to the lab, one might think a whole team of scientists were waiting to get to work, but actually just one man was fit for the job. Mark Mitchell, the museum’s best fossil preparator, would have years of work ahead of him.
10. More rare than ever expected
After hundreds upon hundreds of hours over the course of many years, of painstakingly meticulous work, Mitchell has removed much of the hard rock that had entombed the fossil. And in seeing the fossil that was freed from within the rubble, it is so well preserved, it looks like a sculpture.
Frozen in time, the dragon-like dinosaur is rare in many ways, including, specifically, the retention of all its fingers and toes. The dinosaur appears to be turning its head to the left, perhaps to catch a quick glimpse of what came along and killed the creature, and ultimately created such an incredible specimen.
11. More than just the bare bones
Jakob Vinther, a paleobiologist, flew in from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom to lend his expertise. Vinther was amazed at the condition in which the fossil had been preserved. More often than not, fossils include a fully formed skeletal structure, but this dinosaur still had small swaths of skin and soft tissues.
When Michael Greshko, a writer for National Geographic visited the lab he noted that the level of completeness was such that he could count individual scales. Vinther’s initial reaction was that it “might have been walking around a couple of weeks ago. I’ve never seen anything like this.” Is Alberta actually a real-life Jurassic Park?
12. The real-life Jurassic Park?
Before all the dinosaur enthusiasts out there go calling in Jeff Goldblum to reprise his role as Dr. Ian Malcolm, only in a real-life Jurassic Park type scenario, the dinosaur is indeed well preserved, but it’s also definitely ancient. How ancient? Somewhere between 110 million and 112 million years old.
Coming in at 110 to 112 million years old, the fact that the fossil still possesses trace amounts of skin and soft tissue is all the more impressive. The state of the specimen tells us the amazing, albeit tragic, story of how the dinosaur came to be frozen in time.
13. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth
There’s a reason Jurassic Park took place on the fictional Isla Nubra and not in the Arctic. The fictional Costa Rican island was supposed to be set off the coast of Central America, and was chosen as the site of the Jurassic Park theme park specifically for its dinosaur friendly climate.
In present day Alberta, you’d better have a heavy-duty coat if you’re even going to think about venturing outside anytime other than those few fleeting summer months. The arctic winds that blow across the region are far from hospitable for humans, let alone dinosaurs. But when dinosaurs roamed around, they were living in an almost unrecognizable landscape. Let’s set the scene.
14. Once upon a time…
Traveling back in time, to when dinosaurs walked the earth, some 110 – 112 million years ago, western Canada was a lot more tropical than any Albertan would ever imagine having weathered a winter there. There would have been conifer forests and ferns as far as the eye could see.
And maybe even an inland ocean for the Fort McMurray dinosaur to have lived along. The land-dwelling dinosaur wouldn’t have been likely to hop into the water for a swim, but maybe it enjoyed the view over the ocean. Either way, one unlucky day along the water, this dinosaur met an untimely demise.
15. A walk along the water
According to Henderson, there’s plenty of evidence asserting that there were once large rivers flowing out of the mountains of northern British Columbia and toward the inland ocean that is now present day Alberta. Scientists believe that the creature would’ve been hanging out along the water, when perhaps a flooded river came crashing down the shore and swept it off its feet, literally.
The body, floating on its back, would have then been carried by the water downriver. Gases within its body cavity would’ve kept the carcass from sinking, until finally it floated out to sea. Fate then stepped in to save the dinosaur from never being found.
16. Sunken treasure on the ocean floor
After approximately a week, give or take a few days, the dinosaur’s bloated body burst, and with the wind out of its sails, so to speak, the carcass sunk. Dropping back first like buttered toast, the dinosaur’s body sank to the bottom of the ocean floor.
The force with which the dinosaur hit the sand created a crater, and so, lying on its back on the ocean floor, mud and silt quickly washed over the body, and ultimately preserving it perfectly. While it sounds like an unfortunate way to go, scientists say that if anything had happened any differently, the record-breaking fossil would never have been found. But that wasn’t all.
17. Meeting a new dinosaur
The fossil is an incredible find, and it’s one that palaeontologists everywhere are amazed to have access to study. Despite museum staff still not settling on a catchy name for the dinosaur, the specimen is a newly discovered species of nodosaur, an armored plant-eater from the Cretaceous period.
In thanks to its miraculous condition, scientists know more about this nodosaur than ever before. The landlubbing dinosaur would’ve been one of the least likely species to take a swim, but it’s all in thanks to its watery tomb that it can be examined in such detail, and what it has already revealed to researchers is shaking up the scientific community.
18. The loner of dinosaurs
Nodosaurs were usually around 18 feet long, and came in around a hefty 3,000 pounds. To put that into context, imagine how strong the rush of water was that was able to wash away the heavy-set dinosaur. Despite its size, the nodosaur wasn’t some mighty T-Rex-type predator.
It might be easiest to think of the species as the rhinoceros of the Cretaceous period, a vegetarian who preferred to spend time on its own. But, in case the introverted nodosaur was approached by an enemy, say a menacing acrocanthosaurus otherwise known for preying on the plant-eating nodosaur, it had a method of defense.
19. But don’t make it mad
The nodosaur is a member of the Ankylosauridae family, but unlike its relatives, the nodosaur didn’t have a spiked tail club. Palaeontologists have determined that Ankylosaurs, nodosaurs included, would have moved slowly, but in the event of an attack, would’ve been able to act fast.
Ray Stanford, a dinosaur tracker, described the dinosaur as a “four-footed tank,” and it far from defenseless. The nodosaur has two 20-inch long spikes protruding from its shoulders, and would’ve been able to defend itself against attack. Although of course, those shoulder spikes couldn’t do much against the flood that took out the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s specimen.
20. A perfect fossil
After seeing the fossil in person Michael Greshko described the dinosaur’s level of preservation as akin to “winning the lottery.” The fossil holds the title of oldest Albertan dinosaur ever excavated. After it was released from its rocky casing, studying the fossil is an extremely precarious art form.
There is a lot to be learned from the nodosaur fossil, since it’s more than just a skeleton. An elephant skeleton doesn’t show any signs of a trunk, for example, and so in along that same line of thought, scientists have long wondered whether some large dinosaurs had trunks. The Millenium Mile nodosaur is unique in its completeness, and so it has much to offer.
21. A technicolor dream
Victoria Arbour, a scientist based out of Toronto with the Royal Ontario Museum, “It really helps us visualize what these weird dinosaurs would have looked like while alive.” The dinosaur’s armor is so amazingly well-preserved there are even microscopic traces of its original coloring – a truly rare occurrence for scientists to study.
According to Vinther, who specializes in animal coloration, “This armor was clearly providing protection, but those elaborated horns on the front of its body would have been almost like a billboard.” And in the course of his work, Vinther has put together a pretty good theory as to what the nodosaur would have been advertising.
22. Learning all about the nodosaur
Chemical tests conducted on microscopic scrapings smaller than a grain of sand, taken from the skin that remains attached to the dinosaur’s carcass, have revealed that the nodosaur’s armor retains some reddish pigments. Meanwhile, we know that the horns would have been much lighter colored.
Vinther believes that the nodosaur’s flashy horns would’ve stood out against the landscape. To that end, he suspects that the horns may have helped it seduce possible partners, or to intimidate other dinosaurs that may have tried vying for its mate’s attentions. And that’s not the only information the fossil’s remarkably preserved armor has to teach.
23. Armed and ready
As Curator of Dinosaurs Donald Henderson explained, “I’ve been calling this one the Rosetta stone for armor.” Typically, reconstructing a dinosaur’s armor involves quite a lot of educated estimations, since dinosaur’s scale-like bony plates, known as osteoderms, are one of the first things to fall away during decay.
Just as palaeontologists have wondered whether large species of dinosaur such as in the Ankylosaur family may have trunks, skeletons don’t tell us anything about the creature’s skin. But this fossil is special. Arbour is particularly excited as, “what we though this animal looked like based on the skeleton is what it actually looked like.”
24. A well-preserved specimen
The osteoderms of this nodosaur are still perfectly in place, and moreover, so well preserved, so are some of the scales between plates. Some of the osteoderms are even covered in traces of keratin, which is also the stuff human fingernails are made out of. The keratin allows paleontologists to see how the nodosaur’s skin would’ve effected its size and shape.
The reddish armor seems to indicate that the nodosaur had what is called countershading – the top of the creature would’ve blended in with the landscape, while the belly is believed to have been much lighter. There’s still more the fossil has to teach, but getting there has been more than a bit tricky.
25. Please handle with care
According to Mark Mitchell, the process of excavating the nodosaur must be done slowly and steadily. In a report published in National Geographic, Mitchell’s work is described as, “like freeing compressed talcum powder from concrete.” Like Michelangelo delicately carving David from a block of marble, Mitchell has had a sculptor’s touch in taking the nodosaur from rock to fossil.
As a token of gratitude for Mitchell’s dedication, the formal name of the specimen has been dubbed “Borealopelta markmitchelli.” After the better part of a decade working on the nodosaur fossil, he knows that at each stage of study, there are more challenges to be faced.
26. The Last Supper
The Millennium Mine dinosaur’s extraordinary state of preservation is an incredibly lucky feat of fossilization. Caleb Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Tyrrell Museum told National Georgraphic, “We don’t just have a skeleton, we have a dinosaur as it would have been.”
A team of researchers are currently working to analyze whatever can be gleaned from the contents of the dinosaur’s guts to determine what the plant-eater’s last meal might have been. In most cases, all that remains are bones and teeth, but this nodosaur, has so much more to it. While the presence of its armor is useful in a big way, it can actually be a hindrance too.
27. Almost too much of a good thing
Mitchell knows that in order to completely understand every microscopic bit of data deep within the fossilized nodosaur, he’ll be working for years and years, and even then some. It took seven years to clear away all the caked-on layers of rock, and that’s just to reveal the creature’s exterior.
Most dinosaur remains are mere skeletons, which can be quite informative in many ways, but after the initial excitement over the study of the nodosaur’s armor had subsided, the scientists were presented with an unexpected problem. Palaeontologists working on the fossil have found that accessing everything underneath said epidermis is proving to be quite tricky.
28. Getting to the heart of it all
If it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, the level of preservation is almost too good for scientists to get into the nitty gritty details of the dinosaur’s interior. While the intact osteoderms are absolutely assets in the study of armor, the creature’s defense mechanism is defending against additional research.
Initial attempts at studying the specimen’s skeleton have all been unexpectedly thwarted and are only becoming increasingly difficult with every attempt. It is becoming more and more likely that getting a glimpse of the bones under all that armor would mean having to destroy the nodosaur’s outer layers.
29. That’s all, for now
After funding for CT scans were provided by the National Geographic Society, scientists were hopeful that they may get even a small glimpse into what the nodosaur’s internal structure might resemble. Alas, every attempt made at studying the skeleton through scans were unsuccessful.
Getting to the fossilized figure entombed in all that rock required a highly trained technician wielding needle-tipped tools, all on a massive multi-ton stone. By that metric, to get to the skeleton, it’s possible that new scientific advances will need to be invented and employed. As Arbour explained, “The rock is too dense…Ironically, it’s too well preserved!”
30. The star attraction
In the midst of all this work on the incredible nodosaur fossil, the Royal Tyrrell Museum included the dinosaur in an exhibit on fossils unearthed in Alberta over the years. Of course, the nodosaur was the star of the show. The public was able to gawk at the time travelling dinosaur.
To think, that a regular guy like Shawn Funk could accidentally come across such an incredible specimen has sent the Canadian construction crew into a tizzy. Since the discovery of the nodosaur fossil, everyone at Suncor has been on high alert for another special find. While their excavation has yet to reveal anything else, stay tuned!