Alberta, a western province in Canada, is known for beef, oil, and wide open prairie land. Alberta also holds the distinction of being home to countless dinosaurs. So many dinosaurs have been found in the province to warrant several dinosaur museums, like the Royal Tyrell Museum. The town of Drumheller is known as the Dinousar Capital of the World thanks to the many fossils discovered in the surrounding area. The town has several Dinosaur attractions that thousands of tourists flock to. Lastly, the Alberta badlands houses Dinosaur Provincial Park. The Park is one of the richest areas in the world for dinosaur fossils. Around 58 species have been discovered in the park. An additional 500 specimens have been removed and displayed in museums around the world.
Dinosaur excavation in Alberta has occurred since the 19th century. Let’s take a look at the history of Alberta dinosaur excavations as well as a list of some of the notable dinosaurs to be discovered in the province. We’ll also talk about some of the prime spots in Alberta for finding dinosaur bones. To get started, I’ll explain why so many dinosaur species have been found in Alberta.
Land of Dinosaurs
During the Cretaceous period, Alberta was a much warmer place than it currently is. This warm climate supported lush and diverse plant life. The variety of vegetation attracted large numbers of herbivores. These dinosaurs thrived on the rich vegetation; as a result, their numbers skyrocketed. The large herbivore population in turn supported the carnivore dinosaurs that preyed on them. In short, the ecosystem of Alberta in the Cretaceous was the perfect home for the dinosaurs.
When the great extinction of the dinosaurs occurred, Alberta provided the perfect grave. Across the landscape stretched vast rivers and lakes. These bodies of water preserved millions of bones. Shifting sands and frequent rapid floods quickly buried bones, eventually fossilizing them.
Erosion after the extinction of the dinosaurs slowly removed the rock that had built up over time. Now the remains of the dinosaurs could be discovered. And it happened to be in Alberta where most of the fossils were found.
Until 1824, dinosaurs were unknown to the world. Dinosaurs first became known when fossil teeth were discovered in rock in southern England; the fossils date to the late Jurassic and early Cretacious periods. That discovery sparked the discovery of dinosaur fossils in almost every corner of the globe.
As mentioned earlier, dinosaur excavation in Alberta first occurred in the late 1800s. In 1884, a young geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada uncovered the skull of a large meat-eating dinosaur. This was the first dinosaur to be discovered in Alberta’s badlands. The man’s name was Joesph Burr Tyrell. Supposedly, Tyrell accidently discovered the skull while searching for coal seams. Scientists later named the dinosaur Albertosauras sarcophagus after its home province.
The period between 1910-1917 is known as the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush. This period saw a rise in archeological digs, all with the goal of discovering dinosaur fossils. As a result, thousands of remains were collected. Many were shipped out of Canada to museums in Europe and the United States.
Even after this dinosaur rush ended, dinosaur digs continued in Alberta. With each new excavation came unearthings of long lost dinosaurs.
In 1981, the Alberta government announced plans to open a provincial paleontology museum. The plan materialized in the 1970s when the Alberta government considered building a museum adjacent to Dinosaur Provincial Park. The government recruited the paleontology program of the Provincial Museum of Alberta to assist in its creation.
The initial name of the museum was the Paleontological Museum and Research Institute. Museum director David Baird decided to change the name to the Tyrell Museum of Paleontology in honour of Joesph Burr Tyrell.
The museum opened to the public on September 25, 1985. On June 28, 1990, the museum’s name officially changed to the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology, after Queen Elisabeth II bestowed the museum with the royal title.
As of 2020, the Royal Tyrell contains 13 exhibits of about 800 fossils. The museum’s collection also includes around 160,000 catalouged fossils. The majority of these fossils are from sites in Alberta. The sheer number of fossils makes the Royal Tyrell the museum with the largest fossil collection in Canada.
Alberta has many sites rich in dinosaur fossils. The most well known is the badlands. The badlands refers to an area containing erosion of large packages of sedimentary rock. The erosion takes place at different intervals: some rock erodes quickly, while others more slowly. This results in interesting geological formations, like hoodoos. The badlands is known for late Cretaceous dinosaurs, but there are countless fossils of small repitles, fish, mamals, small inverbates, and even plants.
Outside of the badlands, Alberta has many dinosaur sites. Northern Alberta contains its fair share of dinosaur fossils. Many bones come from the Grand Prarie area in northwestern Alberta. The town of Wembley, which is near Grand Prarie, even has a dinosaur museum: the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum.
The oilfields in north eastern Alberta are a large deposit for dinosaur bones. The oil town of Fort McMurray has unearthed many dinosaur species. They are usually found by crews conducting oil exploration.
Not only dinosaurs are found in the oilsands. The fossils of marine invertebrates are frequently found in this area. Around 390 million years ago, much of Alberta was underwater and lay close to the equator. These conditions allowed the formation of giant reefs, which were home to thousands of marine species. Over time, the reefs eventually disappeared. It was deposited as a large piece of rock called the Waterways Formation. This formation now lies underneath the oilsands. It is a hotbed for marine invertebrate fossils.
Other Notable Sites
There are so many places in Alberta to find fossils. So much so that it’s impossible to list every single one. Here are a few more examples.
The Krotie mine near Lethbridge is the only mine in the world to contain ammolite, which is a gemstone. Ammolites are produced through the preservation of Cretaceous ammonites: a shelled cehpalopod related to octopuses and squids.
Joffre Bridge houses a fast Late Paleocene deposit of well preserved fossil plants, which includes trees, leaves, seeds, and whole plants.
Famous Alberta Dinosaurs
Now let’s take a look at some of the famous dinosaurs found in Alberta. Kicking things off is a giant meat-eating killer.
Albertasaurus was a giant meat-eating dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceuos period in what is today Alberta. They are a type of Tyrannosaur. In 1910, American paleontologist Brown found nine different Albertasaurus fossils near Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park in central Alberta. Eighty-six years later, paleontologist Philip J. Currie set out to find Brown’s dig site. Currie found the site, and his discovery was much larger than Brown’s. Twenty-six Albertasaurs were discovered. Their age ranged from two to 20. This discovery was scientifically significant. It indicated that Albertasaurus lived in large groups, suggesting pack animal behaviour. Currie’s Albertasaur discovery is now on display at the Royal Tyrell.
Feathers in Amber
You might remember the opening of 1993’s Jurassic Park where paleontologists find a mosquito in amber. In 2011, paleontologists from the University of Alberta found something equivalent. The team dug out 11 fossilized dinosaur feathers in amber around Grassi Lake in southern Alberta. This was the first time palentologists found dinosaur’s feathers in amber. Some feathers were simple in design. Others were complex barbed feathers. The barbed feathers are the ones the birds of today have.
Named after Dr. Currie, the bird-like animal is a member of the Troodinate dinosaur family. Albertavenator currie resembled the birds of today. It walked on two feet, had short arms, and was covered in feathers. This dinosaur also boasted sharp talons. Albertavenator is a new dinosaur specimen; it was only recently discovered. Finding their remains is extremely rare, and a whole skeleton has yet to be discovered. Hopefully, the day will come when an entire Albertavenator Currie is found.
The story of this dinosaur finding is truly remarkable. In 2011, a man operating a digger at a northern Alberta mine accidently unearthed one of the best preserved nodosaur specimens in the world. The fossil was in a life-like position. All of its body armour and some of its soft tissue were still intact. The fossil was so well preserved that paleontologists extracted Broealopelta intact from its snout down to its hips.
The fossil taught scientists many things about Borealopelta Markmitchelli. The armoured herbivore measured more than five meters long and weighed in at around 3,000 pounds. The dinosaur likely died in a flash flood. Layers of sediment perfectly encased the dinosaur until it was found some 110 million years later.
This well preserved fossil allows paleontologists to observe what Borealopelta Marlmitchelli actually looked like.
Gorgosaurus was a member of the tyrannosaur family. Think of Gorgosaur as the older, smaller, leaner cousin of the famous Tyrannosaurus (also known as T-rex). The one found in Alberta holds the distinction as one of the best preserved tyrannosaurs found on the entire globe. Alberta paleontologists also had another reason to celebrate: tyrannosaur skeletons rarely show up in the province.
There was a unique feature of the discovered Grogosaurus. Its right leg somehow broke and then healed over. This detail offers and insight into how this particular Grogosaur lived. It also provides an insight into the environment the dinosaurs lived in: a chaotic and violent life.
Paleontologists from the University of Calgary recently discovered this dinosaur. Thanatotheristes is a large carnivorous dinosaur. It is the oldest known tyrannosaur in North America and the first new tyrannosaur species to be discovered in Canada in 50 years. Adding to its ferocious presence, the Thantotheristes name translates to “reaper of death“.
The Thanatotheristes fossil provides several interesting facts. For example, the Thanatotheristes fossil indicates that tyrannosaurs were a highly diverse species. Research indicates that tyrannosaurs did not share one general body type. In fact, different tyrannosaur species evolved their own distinct body shapes, skull sizes, and other physical features. These features corresponded with their specific environment.
This new exciting find will soon be on display at the Royal Tyrell. Thanatotheristes is another great tyrannosaur find for paleontologists in Alberta.
Grand Cache Trackways
This unique find contains the footprints of several dinosaurs. Scientists believe that at least nine different dinosaur species migrated through Alberta some 110 million years ago. In their path they left behind thousands of footprints in the mud. The mud has transformed into steep sheet rock near Grand Cache in northern Alberta. The footprints found in the rock are some of the most extensive dinosaur trackways in the world. There are more than a dozen trackway sites within 25 square kilometers of the site. The most common footprint comes from an armoured dinosaur.
The Grand Cache Trackways are an important discovery for paleontologists. They demonstrated how dinosaurs moved (in three meter strides). They also provide information on how dinosaurs lived in groups.
Named after Alberta’s capital city, Edmonton, this duck-billed dinosaur had an interesting feature. The Edmontosaurus had a fleshy bit on the top of its head, much like a rooster’s comb. Scientists believe this crest indicates age or species. Or, because of the vibrant colours, male Edmontosaurus used the crest to attract mates.
Whatever its use, the crested Edmontosaurus offers an exciting clue. Other dinosaurs may have sported a large, colorful crest on their heads.
A Province of Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs are synonymous with Alberta. So much so that an Albertasaurus skeleton graces the provincial driver’s license.
Countless dinosaur species have been discovered in Alberta. Some of the most impressive include the Albertasaurus, crested Edmontosaurus, and the Borealopelta markmithelli. Dinosaurs are not the only fossils found in the province. The Grand Cache trackways and the feathers in amber are two incredible paleontological finds.
Alberta is also replete with dinosaur museums. If you ever happen to be visiting, check out the Royal Tyrell Museum and its impressive dinosaur exhibits. Or if you want to see the actual landscape of the dinosaurs, Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta’s badlands is the place to visit.
Overall, Alberta is the perfect place for any dinosaur lover.