The small town with extraordinary badlands

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The small town with extraordinary badlands


(Image credit: Simon Urwin)

Drumheller, in the Badlands of Alberta, Canada, is the self-proclaimed “dinosaur capital of the world.” That’s because it’s home to some of the most important fossil discoveries ever made.

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Alberta, Canada, is home to the largest dinosaur fossil deposits on Earth, and Drumheller – located 280km south of the provincial capital Edmonton – is its epicenter. The small town (7,968 inhabitants) is the self-proclaimed “dinosaur capital of the world”.

Here in this extraordinary badlands topography, dinosaur bones often emerge from the earth and some of the region’s most astonishing discoveries are on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, a world-renowned natural history museum and research center that attracts more than 430,000 people. visitors each year.

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

“The reason this area is so rich in dinosaur finds is because 75 million years ago it was totally different from the badlands terrain you see today,” said paleontologist Dr. Jim Gardner. at Royal Tyrrell specializing in amphibians and prehistoric reptiles. “It was once a semi-tropical coastal plain providing ideal conditions for life to flourish, especially dinosaurs who could feast on the plethora of plants and creatures such as crocodiles, pterosaurs (flying reptiles ) and, of course, other dinosaurs.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

Conditions were also perfect for preserving dinosaurs after they died: seasonal storms and floods killed them in large numbers, then quickly buried their corpses under large quantities of sediment. “Water played a key role in this wonderfully fortuitous cycle of events,” Gardner explained. “It helped create life, caused death, buried dinosaur remains in perfect conditions for preservation, and then triggered fossilization. This makes Alberta the world’s leading dinosaur hotspot.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

Water also played a key role in the discovery of fossils. During the Ice Age (about 25,000 to 40,000 years ago), thick layers of ice carved out much of the younger sedimentary rocks. Then, as the climate warmed, torrents of meltwater were unleashed from glaciers more than a kilometer thick, creating new river valleys. “The process was like pulling the curtain in the theater,” Gardner said. “Ta-dah! Here are all these dinosaur fossils in the rock wall. Erosion continues even today, so every year a few millimeters of rock are lost and new fossils are discovered.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

River erosion has led to some exceptional discoveries, including one of the museum’s stars, the Tyrannosaurus rex ‘Black Beauty’, discovered by chance by two schoolchildren fishing in the Crowsnest River. (Its distinctive black bones are thought to come from manganese present in groundwater when it fossilized.) One of the best preserved T-Rex skeletons ever discovered in Alberta, its skull is 1.3 m long and approximately 1 m wide at the jaw, but as a sub-adult (the dinosaur equivalent of an adolescent) it is considered small by T-Rex standards.

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

Less than 1% of the three million individually cataloged specimens are on public display, with the remainder held in collection rooms and warehouses. One of the most important finds preserved there is an ornithomimosaurus (bird-mimicking lizard), fossilized in a deadly pose. “When our researchers studied it, they found that there were little black marks on the bones of the forelimbs that were the attachment points for the quills,” Gardner said. “These can also be seen on modern-day birds, so here is the first hard evidence that this group of dinosaurs had feathers.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

Protected in plaster and burlap casings, some 3,000 to 5,000 specimens arrive at the museum each year, the largest of which must be transferred from field excavations by helicopter. “Even the smallest pieces are considered valuable and vital for research,” said Rhian Russell, a paleontological conservationist who works in the collections department. “A small piece of bone can bear teeth marks. From this alone, scientists in the laboratory can deduce important new information, such as which species were preyed upon by other dinosaurs.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

Many of the museum’s finest specimens were discovered in Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 170 km southeast of Drumheller. “Most date back to the late Cretaceous, about 10 million years before the mass extinction of the dinosaurs,” said Amber Whitebone, a paleontologist guide at the park. “No other place on Earth can match the number and quality of specimens we have found here, which include more than 50 species of dinosaurs, 150 complete skeletons and 450 different fossilized organisms.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

The park attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year. One of the most popular guided tourist hikes involves discovering a vast bed of dinosaur bones that covers an area the size of two football fields and is the resting place of a herd of horned Centrosaurus, a relative of Triceratops. “The herd numbered over 1,000 individuals,” Whitebone said. “Based on the condition of their bones, it is believed they panicked and drowned while trying to cross a swollen river.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

Dinosaur fossils were first discovered in Alberta by the Blackfoot First Nations, who considered them not dinosaurs, but “grandfathers of the bison,” their most sacred animal. French trappers then arrived on the Red Deer River (which runs through Dinosaur Provincial Park) looking for beaver pelts to send to Europe, where they were in high demand for making top hats. “They traded with the Blackfeet who told them about the treasures that were underground,” Whitebone said. “Word spread and by the early 1900s, the great Canadian dinosaur rush was underway.”

(Credit: Simon Urwin)

More than a century after Alberta’s first fossil-hunting expeditions, the fascination with dinosaurs shows no signs of slowing. For Gardner, their study is essential to understanding the future. “We live on a dynamic, extinction-prone planet,” he said. “We know that life is rebounding, but it is no longer the major players that once dominated that are still here. Humans are now the apex predator on a planet witnessing unprecedented change. What happened to the dinosaurs should be a warning for all of us.”

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